An Odd Couple | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader
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WINIFRED HAUN & DANCERS AND PAULA FRASZ

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 11 and 12

Paula Frasz and Winifred Haun seem an odd combination of choreographers at first. Frasz's dances often make wry observations on the battle of the sexes; but beneath their madcap surface lies a bedrock of fatalism, an unflinching recognition of the pain people often endure. Haun's dances have a forbidding surface: she frequently uses difficult modern music, and long, connected sequences of thought hold many of her dances together. But Haun's bedrock is humanism: her dances are often motivated by outrage--at the abuse of a child or at the sadistic sex of pop songs. Their common decency is what brings this odd couple together, for joint performances this year and in 1994.

Frasz's comic side is on display in The Mood Swing, a romantic trio set to cowboy music. Like her earlier works Eggs and Shoulder Pads, this dance pits two women against each other as they strive for a man's attention. In The Mood Swing the man (Randall Newsom) seems to prefer the slender woman (Judith Chitwood), but the other woman (Frasz) keeps trying; essentially the man dances with whoever throws herself at him hardest. The women's competition centers on an over-the-shoulder lift: Newsom successfully lifts Frasz and sets her down, but Chitwood uses the lift to perch on his shoulder, and he parades her around. Interspersed are bits of social dance (country-and-western swing, a little tap and stamping, some Broadway hoofing) and bits of music (cowboy yodeling and Frasz singing the verses of the bluegrass song "Cripple Creek" that mention women throwing themselves at men). Happily, Frasz wins the contest finally.

A comic piece like The Mood Swing fatalistically assumes that men will take the easy way out in romance. The fatalism in Frasz's Sea Songs is much darker. In its first section, "Undertow," a man (Mark Foster) at the end of a long rope drowns as a song extolling the virtues of the sailing life is sung, accompanied by the sound of the sea. The remaining two sections show the women left behind in the sailing village, waiting for their husbands to return. In "Three Fishers" three women (Margi Cole, Donna Hinsberger, and Regina Wilken) swirl, throw themselves off their centers, and fall, then catch themselves a moment later; the lyrics of the song (by Stan Rogers) go, "Men must work and women must weep." In "Widows Walk" the women pace around a square of light at the center of the floor; it seems to become an open grave, and each woman in turn throws herself in and is pulled out by the other women. The dancing in all sections was excellent. If The Mood Swing is about how inevitably foolish men are, Sea Songs is about the certainty of women's grief.

Frasz's most powerful piece is Hand Out, a solo in which she plays a homeless person living in a Dumpster. Crushed, dejected, and consumed with anger, she slams the lids of the Dumpster open and closed and throws herself bruisingly into it. The homeless person reaches out for a few moments, but no one responds. Though the dance is effective as a social statement, to my mind the character Frasz captures is less an actual street person than the homeless person inside each of us.

Haun is often occupied by formal ideas, such as whether music or movement is more important in a dance--a question that her duet with musician Gene Coleman, composed earlier this year, answers in its title: It's Both. Haun genuinely realizes this idea--that music and movement are equals--in the dance she composed for this concert. In Remake, a ravishing women's quartet set to a Webern symphony, Haun uses the sharp, broken lines of Graham technique to respond to the austere score. I've never heard the existentialism in Webern's music as clearly before; the music is pure emotion, focused on surviving in a suddenly meaningless world. The lulling hushes and sudden eruptions give the music a dynamic texture that Haun respects but is not dominated by.

Each dancer in Remake seems profoundly alone. If a soloist performs in front of a line of three kneeling dancers, then the three dancers seem involved in their own machinelike movement and the soloist seems isolated. The duets don't last long. Much time is spent in a group doing identical movement, from which one dancer (Heather Girvan) continually breaks away to dance the same phrase. When Girvan seems to make a connection with another dancer, lifting her, then she immediately lifts all the other dancers too, making any special connection impossible. The dance exists in a friendless world, bound by suffocating rules of behavior.

The world of Who's Child? is also bleak, but the sadness is captured in a single character--"Genie," a real-life abused child who was kept at home strapped to a toilet seat. When, at the age of 13, Genie was rescued by child welfare workers, she was unable to speak. This made her an object of desire to linguists studying how a child acquires language. By treating Genie more like a prize laboratory specimen than an abused child, the linguists at times seem worse than Genie's abusive father.

Haun's dance, based on Russ Rymer's New Yorker article, has a lot of narrative ground to cover, and it doesn't entirely succeed. Genie's abusive father and passive mother (Malcolm Low and Tammy Cheney) appear, as do several linguists (Low, Cheney, and Marquita Levy), but the best moments are Genie's. Her bizarre movement is remarkable both for its sensuous exploration of new possibilities and for its inward-turning self-stimulation. Lara Tinari captures Genie's movement perfectly; when Tinari dances, she seems completely absorbed in what she's doing--and her absorption is well suited to Genie's character. Despite its problems, the dance is both affecting and enraging.

A hidden stream of outrage can be found in Haun's East 90/94, a dance that follows the life of a Chicago commuter. After the commuter returns home, a romantic trio set to the pop song "What's Love Got to Do With It?" shows a man (Albert Espinoza) in sexual affairs with two women (Zineb Chraibi and Tinari); the heartlessness with which he switches his attention from one to the other shows a sadistic sexuality. Haun immediately follows this trio with a section that shows supportive relationships, as if as an antidote to the poisonous sex of the trio.

The contrast between Frasz and Haun is also a contrast of maturity. Haun seems very much a younger artist, struggling with her craft and almost stumbling across her subjects, discovering in her dances who she is and what she values. Frasz seems older--someone who, after watching quietly for many years, has suddenly discovered that she has many things to say.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Mauney.

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