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Dance Notes: on the threshold of a revelation

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"My father was a hard-working farmer and sawyer," Dan Wagoner explains in Connie Kreemer's book on dance Further Steps. "He chewed tobacco, spat a lot, and could curse with great fluency. A friend once described him this way: 'He was the most natural "cusser" I ever knew. He could make a "goddamn" sound almost theological, and "son of a bitch" a compliment. I never heard him cuss in anger or malice. His cursing was colorful, appropriate, and more eloquently descriptive than Oxford diction. . . .'

"There was the simple, accepted concept that if you loved to do something, and it felt good, you did it. Dancing felt good, so I danced."

Dan Wagoner has been dancing for 40 years, and with the best modern-dance choreographers: Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor. He is still busy creating dances, for London Contemporary Dance Theatre, for his own New York-based company, and recently for the Chicago Moving Company.

Wagoner appears to have inherited his father's eloquence. His conversations often start with dance, then widen almost wildly until he reaches a significant point, when they drift quietly down to earth again. Asked about the difficulties of getting funding for dance, Wagoner says, "Funders get very suspicious about dance. You can't tell somebody what a dance is about. You can't verbalize it or reduce it to words. We are a verbal culture. We trust words, and don't trust what we see. Often we don't know how to see, and can't train our eye to look. We wait to have a critic tell us what we saw. We wait to have a news analyst tell us what the president said--what he meant. We wait always to be told how a work is to be interpreted. It doesn't make for very many independently minded people, or many brilliant people."

In this situation Wagoner thinks art has a simple purpose: "Good art opens doors--it's a threshold. It has a promise to it." He recalls taking technique classes from Graham. "It was as if she was on the threshold of a wonderful revelation. And you stood there, breathless. She never took you across the threshold--that was left for you to do--but it was the promise that something wonderful was going to happen."

When he makes a dance, Wagoner tries to open a door for the audience. "A dance is still a rare, unique enough kind of activity that people will open up to it, and not bring preconceived ideas. You can kind of catch them off-balance and wrap them right up and take them somewhere where they didn't expect to go." To make a dance, a choreographer has to crisscross through his own life. At some point in the process these crossing trails reach a certain density and a choreographer says to himself, "My God, in any direction I go I can find endless possibilities." Wagoner explains the feeling with a line from a George Montgomery poem: "When anything seems possible, very little will do nicely."

And that's the title of the dance Wagoner created for the Chicago Moving Company. When Anything Seems Possible, Very Little Will Do Nicely will be presented tonight and tomorrow, February 14 and 15, and next weekend, February 21 and 22, at the Dance Center of Columbia College, 4730 N. Sheridan Road, as part of the company's 20th-anniversary season. Other dances include CMC artistic director Nana Shineflug's Bewegung and Different Trains, and there will be performances by many of the company's former dancers. Performances begin at 8 and tickets are $10; call 271-7928 for information and reservations.

At one point Wagoner and I fell to talking about black holes and theories of the origin of the universe. The next morning, at the dance class Wagoner taught, in the midst of explaining how to perform a movement he stopped and said, "It's like approaching a black hole. You feel a greater and greater sense of compression, as if your whole being were reduced to a single point. Then you break through that point and release yourself into another universe." Like his teachers, Wagoner brings to his students the sense of endless possibility.

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