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At a Very Strange Place


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at the Shubert Theatre,

May 4 and 6-8


at the Athenaeum Theatre,

April 29 and 30

Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with these Spring Festival of Dance programs, is at a very strange place in its history. Randy Duncan, the company member who took over the troupe when Holmes died in 1986, quit last August. Now it's a headless monster: though the program lists the founders, a company coordinator, and a ballet master, an artistic director is conspicuously absent. Duncan made a number of interesting, often award-winning dances for the company, but he took them with him when he left. The troupe has shrunk to nine (two guest artists brought the number to eleven in these performances), and of those, only four were dancing with JHCDT last year.

Joseph Holmes seems held together with bubble gum and spit, but by God it's holding together. Two of the new dancers, Pleshette McKnight and Levensky Smith, are fabulous, and all of them, old and new, look very good. Some of the new dances are attractive and well made, if perhaps not as original as Duncan's. And one of them is as strong and feeling as dance gets.

That's Bill T. Jones's Soon, which he made for his own company in 1989. This unsentimental romantic duet captures all the ordinariness of living together day by day, then turns a corner and discovers the sudden, hard feelings that are just as much a part of intimacy. The entire dance is washed by the sensual longing in the five songs that make up the score: two old blues tunes sung by Bessie Smith, two songs by Kurt Weill, one by Bertolt Brecht. The choreography continually conveys a sense of loss and recovery, as one or the other dancer lies down, then revives. But Soon ends, abruptly, with a loss--with the dancer we don't expect to collapse lying on the floor and the other backing away.

Jones's partner, Arnie Zane, died in 1988; Soon seems to embody Jones's wish to bring his lover back. This hallucinatory work traps us in a long night of grieving dreams, in a place where identity is fluid, where wishes and fears, longing and contentment, death and sleep follow one another in an endless parade. In the middle section one dancer makes signs with her hands over the other, but the witchcraft doesn't work--the lover doesn't come back to life, at least not at this point. Several strong, unusual images of love make the idea of separation more poignant: one dancer jumps into the bowl of the other dancer's outstretched legs on the floor; the dancers stand in a wide, low second position, knees vibrating, a sensual movement underlined by a splayed hand floating downward; a dancer's encircling arms display the lover's face--upside down. Ariane Dolan and McKnight (there were also a male-female cast and a male-male cast) were wonderful, both delicate and strong, everyday and otherworldly.

Soon has so much feeling that the other dances are bound to look ordinary by comparison. Still, two works by JHCDT ballet master James Kelly were very strong. His premiere on this program, The Mean Reds, starts slowly, with a ho-hum duet to uncharacteristically dull Philip Glass music, but then the Glass score heats up: various percussion instruments, piercing blasts on a whistle, and Latin-sounding songs give it a Caribbean feel. The dancers take off--and Kelly really puts them through their paces, supplying lots of changes in elevation, from low crouches to leaps. He also skillfully knits together African moves and balletic movement: one moment a dancer is digging a flexed foot into the floor, and the next kicking high into the air, leg like an arrow to the sky.

The dancers looked terrific in the similarly difficult choreography of Kelly's 1993 Crossing the Line. This dance is in the MTV vein, familiar to Chicagoans from the Daniel Ezralow pieces performed by Hubbard Street and from the Joffrey's Billboards, set to music by Prince. Here George McRae's rock score, the industrial look created by stripping the stage back to the walls, Sean Neron's harsh overhead lighting, and the dancers' mean looks are all comfortably grainy and cutting edge. Even the flapping business suits (designed by Joe Brown, who also did the one-leg-skinny, one-leg-fat costumes for The Mean Reds) look familiar despite their unusual cut. Maybe it's the influence of Ezralow's Super Straight Is Coming Down or Shirley Mordine's Subject to Change, in which each dancer doffed business attire to reveal beneath it the more real, more natural person in a unitard.

Crossing the Line doesn't seem completely original, but it does add the notion of crossing gender barricades to the more general idea of breaking out of a dehumanizing business sensibility. And its intricate, high-energy choreography is well performed, especially by Smith, a former gymnast whose precision and speed are dazzling.

McKnight performs Leni Wylliams's 1993 solo Sweet in the Morning with so much supple energy she almost obscures its ordinariness. What sets this dance apart is the fact that much of it's done on a bench--but even that isn't new. Talley Beatty's 1947 solo Mourner's Bench also uses a bench, as well as gospel music made up like this music of a single repeated line. True, the thrust of Wylliams's dance is slightly different--Beatty's soloist has to get right with God, and Wylliams's already is--but otherwise the two works are much alike.

OK, so maybe it's true there's nothing new under the sun. But then the trick is to make us think we're seeing something new. In Ritmo Latino Arturo Alvarez and Leopoldo Gil don't even try to pull that off. And Holmes's Sunday Go to Meetin', also on this program, is simply straightforward, high-quality imitation Ailey.

Duncan's departure has meant lots of new works--and it's refreshing to see this company in new pieces, some of them very good. But you have to wonder where JHCDT is going from here.

Pushy, pushy, pushy. That's Wini Haun, who a few years ago was a JHCDT dancer. Not that her choreography is pushy. Actually, it's rather well-bred. No, she pushes her way into new areas, new dance forms, new music. She can't let well enough alone. And she pushes herself onto the scene--which isn't easy--coming up with a hometown concert every six months or so that includes at least one new dance.

No wonder her latest work, performed at the Athenaeum Theatre, is called Press On, Regardless. Here she tries on for size popular music of another era--she's already tried contemporary pop (Peter Gabriel, Melissa Etheridge, Joe Cocker) and classical, the more difficult the better. To music by the Duke Ellington orchestra, the ensemble of seven weave their way around the stage in lines that never last long because--well, I'm not sure why. Because following the leader suddenly loses its charm, I guess. Dancers hoisted onto others' backs or scrambling from one dancer's back to another seem to be climbing giant's steps or mountains. One dancer falls.

Thinking it was a real fall, I stiffened. But it was just Haun trying something new again. Most of her choreography is clean, precise, and odd--distortions of classical line carried off with the utmost authority and control. Like the music of the modern classical composers she loves, Haun's work is austere and often dissonant. At the same time it's subtly feminine, delicate and girlish. But in Press On she almost seems to emulate the Twyla Tharp of Sue's Leg, the clown who introduces fumbles and mistakes and complicated partnerings as if for the hell of it. Abandoning her usual taut lines, Haun has the dancers simply stand in a row, backs to us, arms crossed over their chests--a pose that couldn't be less presentational. I'm not sure Press On is a completely successful experiment, because it leaves out so much of what's distinctive and beautiful about Haun's work. But you have to admire her for not standing still.

You also have to admire Haun for her dancers. This choreography demands real accomplishment, but accomplished performers with good classical grounding tend to go to bigger companies. So Haun finds promising young people and trains them well--and they move on. Of the seven dancers here, four were new. Only one--Heather Girvan, who danced Haun's works even before she formed the troupe in 1991--has been with the company more than a year and a half. They do remarkably well. In the demanding Remake, which requires precise, sustained poses often on releve, Amy Crandall, Dana Gilhooley, Girvan, and Wendy Meyer were not only steady but downright sculptural. When lanky Paul Andrews really moved out in East 90/94 he took over the stage, and Albertossy Espinoza is both looser and more precise than he was last fall--he's developed authority and a fine flair for comedy. Marquita Levy, who performed Haun's role in East 90/94 and a pivotal role in Press On, is not only technically excellent--both chiseled and supple--but expressive. In fact, all these dancers look like they mean something. Sometimes being pushy pays off.

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