The Salts, a dance/music shindig presented by local arts collective the Inconvenience, is an exuberant mess—something the Chicago performance scene can always use more of.
The 90-or-so-minute event combines a live band (a different one for each of the six shows) with flashy, pushy, angsty, disorderly dance pieces by Erin Kilmurray and her four-person dance troupe, also called the Salts. The whole thing takes place in one of Collaboraction's big black-box theaters, transformed into the semblance of an underground nightclub, with spinning lights, multiple stages, loud punkish music, tubs of beer. Stuff happens all over the place: on one stage or another, sometimes on two stages simultaneously, in the middle of the crowd, in an inaccessible back corner. Collisions between dancers and spectators are unavoidable. The music is loud and distorted enough to piss people off.
As you might expect, an air of outre edginess surrounds the affair. The press release goes so far as to call the event an "experimental dance project" that will engage an audience "outside the typical." It's a stretch to call the fusion of dance and live rock music in a clublike setting an experiment, as Andy Warhol covered that ground almost 50 years ago with his Exploding Plastic Inevitable. And I can't know what's typical for the throng of twenty- and thirtysomethings who showed up opening night, sporting the fashionably unfashionable clothes that have long been the calling card of the post-art-school crowd, cheering on the Salts as though they were the Velvet Underground. But as someone entering my sixth decade, nothing felt unfamiliar or envelope pushing. Rather, I was hit with an intoxicating spell of nostalgia.
Twenty-five years ago, when a good dozen venues—licensed and otherwise—routinely presented performance events around the north side, this sort of multidisciplinary mayhem was the norm. Sure, the scene was more cerebral and literate, but the let's-throw-stuff-together-and-see-what-comes-out spirit was robust. Just about any weekend you could find a gallery or club where you might stare in wonder, puzzlement, or boredom while artists sent up massive aesthetic trial balloons. Many of them were inadequately inflated. Even more were overblown. But the insistent desire to create art in the cracks between established disciplines gave the scene an urgent fervor.
That scene all but vanished by the new millennium, and The Salts isn't likely to revive it. Nothing here exists between the cracks: Kilmurray's choreography is almost pure, audience-friendly dance (with the occasional monologue thrown in), and the live music is performed before and after the dance concert, creating no cross-pollination. But the evening's playful, chaotic cockiness is a bracing reminder of just how staid, starched, and grandparent-friendly most theater around town is.
Whether The Salts is successful, though, depends entirely on the frame through which you view it. If you judge it as a dance concert, with some music before and after, it's a bit of a disaster. Sight lines are often nonexistent. When the dancers performed atop the raised stages, I saw them from the waist up. When they were on the floor amid the audience, I caught the occasional bouncing head. And Kilmurray's often frantic choreography swiftly devolves into an exhausting, everything-all-at-once blur that expresses little beyond athleticism and stamina.
More problematic, the relatively brief pieces don't demonstrate much sense of development or progression, either individually or across the span of the evening. For the most part, the dancers adopt an unvarying attitude—equal part coyness, cheekiness, and insolence—and proceed enthusiastically. And they repeatedly exhort the audience to cheer them on (at one point on opening night Kilmurray breathlessly reminded us, "The more energy you give to us, the more we'll give back to you."). After a while the event becomes less a dance concert than a pep rally for Team Salts.
But all these shortcomings vanish if you look at The Salts for what it actually is: a loud party with some live entertainment. Of course you can't see half of what's going on. Of course the pieces are short, punchy and light on content. Of course the dancers try to keep everyone riled up. Of course the band is so loud, and the microphone cable buzz so pronounced, you can barely understand any of the lyrics. Who gives a shit? This is an affair to let wash over you, to scan between swigs of beer and flirtations with the hottie next to you. I doubt anyone cared what deep truths Warhol's dancers communicated, or whether the Velvets had an adequate sound check. v