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at Links Hall

August 15

Failed experiments can be painful for an audience, and repeated failures can drive an audience away permanently. But to be present at a successful experiment is an exhilarating experience: a new world cracks open for the audience, and there's a sense of triumph for the dancers and a sigh of relief that the art form continues to grow.

On Wednesdays in August, Bob Eisen has been hosting a series for experimental dance, theater, and music at Links Hall. Each evening, Eisen performs an improvisational duet with Joanne Barrett. On August 15, they were followed by the Sock Monkeys.

Experiments at early stages can be as fragile as newborns. The Sock Monkeys are at that stage. The dancers--Lydia Charaf, Bryan Saner, Jeanette Welp, and Kay Wendt LaSota --have been working with transplanted New York choreographer Tim Buckley to bring a new strain of postmodern dance to Chicago. Abandoning the abstract, angular shapes of Merce Cunningham for weighted movement filled with momentum, Buckley uses swinging arms and legs to make dances with a loopy athleticism. Buckley's movement has surprising detail and a loose, sweet texture enhanced by the Appalachian music he favors.

The Sock Monkeys' untitled dance was the dancers' first collaboration in this postmodern strain: they tried out on an audience the effect of individual movements. Many of these movements worked.

As Saner, Welp, and Wendt LaSota walked slowly across the floor looking at their feet, Charaf entered from the audience, singing a country-western song; her voice had a rich darkness that almost changed the banal pop tune into a lament. Saner astounded by running up a wall; at the end of the performance, he scaled a side wall, took hold of hooks in the ceiling intended for planters, and hung from them motionless. All of the dancers "walked across" the back wall: with their backs on the floor, they planted their feet on the wall and shuffled them sideways, scooting on their backs. At this fragile stage, performers understandably need the reassurance of laughter, but this choreography aimed a little too hard for that.

Bob Eisen has been a durable experimenter. Using the martial art of aikido as his starting point, Eisen has incorporated contact improvisation, tumbling, and classical modern dance, though little that's postmodern.

Eisen and Barrett's duet was an improvisation, and the moments when she threw herself at Eisen to be caught had a sharp crackle of anxiety: would Eisen be able to catch her? Both dancers fell a few times; Eisen once let out a grunt of pain as he fell on his hip. Successful movements, like a perfectly timed catch and lift, were often utterly new. The physical dangers of this improvisation brought the audience to the edge, and gave the movement a hallucinatory beauty.

Any duet between a man and a woman begs to be seen as a romantic pas de deux, or as a parody of one. A more unlikely-looking romantic couple would be hard to find. Eisen is tall and lanky, and in person has the gruff taciturnity of Gary Cooper's cowboy heroes. He has preferred to work mainly with men, and his dances have had an athletic feel: performers run in circles around the stage, pant and sweat. Barrett is small, almost delicate. She is an exquisitely trained dancer who easily tossed off double pirouettes in plie. When Eisen climbed up on Barrett's shoulders in a lift, the incongruity of their physiques made it look as though a giraffe were trying to climb a maple sapling. Yet Barrett was strong enough to hold him. When Barrett threw herself at Eisen, he caught her with a simple nonchalance. If Eisen was a Cooper- style cowboy, Barrett was the fiery preacher's daughter who's a match for him.

This romantic pas de deux featured a modern couple. They pushed each other, jumped into each other's arms, crawled onto each other's shoulders, danced separately, ran around the stage like a couple of joggers in the park, and rolled in a tangle across the floor. Barrett, the postfeminist woman, was strong enough to support Eisen and strong enough to be on her own. Eisen remained somewhat prefeminist, however: he was a little overbearing when he asked Barrett to perform movements that she was too small to sustain easily.

After years of experimentation with different forms, Eisen has succeeded here in one of the most traditional forms, the romantic pas de deux. A suitable collaborator has finally been found. Leaning on Barrett's strength as a dancer and as a performer, Eisen is beginning to move from the inside; the duet seems to be as much about feeling as form.

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

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