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Anablep & Other Oddities

Monkeyhouse

at Link's Hall, September 19-21

Entwined

Ameba

at Belle Plaine Studio, through September 29

Monkeyhouse offers two things every avant-garde dance group--every performance troupe, for that matter--could use: a sense of humor and a point of view. These coupled with the dancers' considerable skill make for a funny, thought-provoking, thoroughly satisfying evening.

"Boston's only wig-wearin', globe-trottin' dance theater collective" seems dedicated to the proposition that conventional dance should be critiqued for its view of women. This is an idea of considerable power, given how many dances feature women collapsing, bending over backward, and otherwise contorting themselves for others' benefit. Fortunately, though, guiding spirit Karen Krolak and the other two members of the troupe don't confine themselves to observations about dance; what could be more insular? Monkeyhouse goes further, critiquing the culture dance reflects.

The three women set the tone for "Anablep & Other Oddities" with Odalisque/What's Next, to music by Chicagoan Dave Pavkovic. (Krolak herself is a veteran of the Actors Gymnasium and a former member of Chicago's now defunct Baubo Performance Project.) Krolak and Nicole Harris, each wearing a single bright orange work glove with a second glove firmly attached to her breast, perform astonishingly graceful, dancerly lunges and reaches considering that they're also wearing a single stilt that makes one leg twice as long as the other. That choreographer Krolak intends to satirize the world of fashion and women's ornamental role is made clear by the coda: a voice-over observing that "women look so good when they're off balance."

After this opening piece--or "amuse bouche," as it's styled on the menu/program--dancer Amelia O'Dowd roller-skates onstage like a carhop, stopping in front of members of the audience to take their "orders" from the selection

of dances listed under "first course," "side dish," and so on. In addition to being clever showmanship, this satirizes one of the sacred tropes of postmodern dance: the importance of chance operations. But of course the dancers and choreographers who create those "chances" are ultimately in control.

Before the audience's choices kick in there's the "appetizer," Krolak's 1992 piece Spiss/Phallic Fantasy. In this hilarious solo she performs wildly exaggerated moves to a voice-over by a befuddled male who's only at the concert because he thinks he's going to get laid. While Krolak staggers around the stage with a toilet plunger stuck to her head, the narrator muses about the likelihood that the movement actually represents being hit by a lawn dart, adding, "Of course, because she's a dancer she doesn't die when the dart goes into her brain--she just dances around about what it feels like to have a dart go into your brain." (My paraphrase doesn't do the text justice.) This part of the performance invites the audience in: yes, Monkeyhouse understands the gap between what contemporary dance is trying to say and what most dance audiences are able to hear; and yes, it's possible to bridge that gap and watch dance with comprehension and pleasure. The piece is worth a thousand instructional devices, not to mention a hundred thousand words about how anyone who wants to can enjoy contemporary dance, but if they don't it's because they just don't have the necessary background.

The pieces' strange names turn out to be real words. A fascination with language doesn't usually mesh well with dance, but Krolak and company finesse this by announcing the name after each piece's performance. At this point a dictionary definition provides a miniature commentary, whereas in advance it would essentially determine one's perception. Thus we learn only after Harris appears in a satin gown doing a deadpan version of the kind of dance that's all stretched wingspan and graceful collapse that the piece is called Lachrymatory, "having to do with sobbing." Wait, it seems to say, there's more for women to do than suffer. When Alvin Ailey choreographed Cry and dedicated it to "women, especially our mothers," he didn't mean that crying was the only thing a woman could do. I happen to love the kind of work being sent up but am compelled to concede choreographer Harris's point.

Ululation/Mourning After says something similar but with a movement vocabulary so different that there's no whiff of redundancy. Here Krolak dances with one foot in a high-heeled silver slipper and the other seemingly nailed to the floor. This is one of several points in the concert when Monkeyhouse isolates a body part to comment on the objectification of women. In Harris and O'Dowd's Firk (receiving its premiere), Harris tap-dances in fuzzy green slippers while O'Dowd lies still, doing all her dancing with the fingers of a hand encased in an elbow-length satin glove, a veritable Dr. Strangelove of femininity.

The finale, or "dessert," was the premiere of Krolak and O'Dowd's Ramfeezled, a word said to mean "to exhaust oneself in needless busyness." Wearing a T-shirt with a memorable inscription--"I look great...on your floor"--O'Dowd continually adjusts her facial expression and body language in obedience to voice-over instructions from some imaginary (I hope!) book of advice about how women should attract men: look but don't look, be approachable but not easy, lick your lips but keep smiling, toss your hair but keep your head still, ad insanitum.

This exceptional work was performed to a house of five people on opening night. The general audience can be excused for not being familiar with a fringe group from Boston, but the absence of Chicago's dance community is harder to fathom. I hope Monkeyhouse will return and find the wide audience it deserves.

Ameba--a Chicago group of self-styled "movement artists"--freely crosses the frontier separating dance from the circus. The result would look completely at home on one of those old TV variety shows and has the same all-ages family appeal. The program's wealth of back bends, splits, one- and two-person cartwheels, and handstands calls to mind a really good cheerleading routine or a particularly adept set of floor exercises in a gymnastics competition. The evening's pleasure comes from the simple virtuosity of most of the movement, the innocent freedom from allusion, and the novelty of watching a trapeze artist fly close enough to the audience to justify a preshow warning about keeping your arms and legs out of the aisles.

The troupe would be better off with fewer pieces more solidly executed--the juggling, for instance, is not at the same level of facility as the other acrobatics, and there's not enough choreographic imagination to support the few attempts at "serious dance." But no piece is long enough to wear thin, or even to tax the attention span of young children. With a seven o'clock curtain and a 75-minute running time, this is a perfect way to introduce kids to the pleasure of movement in accessible forms.

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

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