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Driving Rhythms

Dance Chicago '97

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

November 1; repeats November 12 and 21

By Laura Molzahn

Sometimes you just want to skim the surface of things. Passion takes many forms, and some of them don't look like passion. They look like jokes. Watching the "Driving Rhythms" program of Dance Chicago '97 I thought that I might write about the innate spirituality of percussive music and dance, about how most religions that incorporate dance in their rituals also involve percussion. I could speculate that the drums repeat some inner human rhythm--the heartbeat or a pulse even more mysterious. I could write about the potential for cultural cross-pollination of this program, which brings together vastly different percussive forms from different peoples.

But it's not that kind of show. Lighthearted, happy, it features plenty of highly honed technique but precious little meaning. Dominated by tap, "Driving Rhythms" nevertheless comes across as a sampler of percussive forms--a box of luscious little chocolates, each one different, some meeting some tastes, some others.

Most sybaritic. By all appearances, the winner is Rhythm I.S.S., three women tap dancers who apparently get immense pleasure from what they do. Idella Reed, Sharon Rushing, and Sarah Savelli have a different energy than male tappers: they're less competitive, lighter on their feet, and looser in the hips--their tapping has a little of the wildness of a puppet on a string. Their a cappella dancing is superior; when they perform to recorded music in Funkin' It, the sound of their tapping is muffled, and though they nicely embroider the fairly simple beat, they can't exploit it by turning the music up or they'll lose their own sound completely.

Youngest and cutest. No question, it's the Dennehy Irish Dancers. They're so little, so light-spirited, so upright and on their toes that especially in their first numbers, performed in soft shoes, you half expect them to float away. They don't have quite the technique and expert unison coordination of Chicago's better-known Trinity Irish Dancers, but they're good. It's easy to see why audiences love Irish dance, with its gorgeous costumes, flying speed, discipline, and good manners. (Imagine, children with glowing bright hair and clothes, moving in unison in neat arrangements.) And in a troupe like this, the children soften what could appear a harshly military form.

Most mellow. The all-ages Red Sand Drum & Dance Troupe, each of whom wears a different costume from a different Native American tribe, are some of the most laid-back performers I've seen. They seem perfectly happy to shuffle in a circle for several minutes, allowing us to contemplate their slow progress. This is truly a meditative form of dance, a sensuous dance for the feet set to chanting and drumming. One feels the ground beneath soft leather slippers and feels the night air, smells smoke and watches the eyes of the person across the circle. And if you can't imagine all this going on it will be a little dull.

Most theatrical. By its nature, flamenco is passionate. When I first saw it I was put off by its apparent egotism, its look of a self-absorbed tantrum. But that's what it is, and Azucena Vega, artistic director of Soul and Duende Spanish-American Dance Theatre, is an experienced exemplar. We can feel her control--of us as well as of herself--in every curl of every finger, every twist of her body, every glance and footstep. This woman knows what she's doing. She knows her way around a theater. Accompanied by a guitarist and a percussionist (who also dances), Vega is passion defined with exquisite efficiency and focus.

Most modern. Winifred Haun & Dancers, indubitably. They're a modern-dance troupe who improvised to percussive snippets of (sometimes percussive) music on five boom boxes. And frankly their dancing came across as a little pointless compared to the work of the other troupes on the program: the soaring or squatting or rolling shapes of modern dance have to do with the torso and its free expression, whereas percussive dancing binds the performer to the floor and focuses attention on the feet. Percussive dancing in an odd way is task oriented, designed to produce or echo sounds; it's not free, and it doesn't have meaning or expression the way modern dance does. On the night I saw the show, the four dancers performing with Haun revealed few if any movements related to the "music."

Most symmetrical. Jellyeye Drum Theatre is also the loudest group on the program, but not so loud that you need earplugs. Their symmetrical arrangements onstage (the piece called Jackie Chan is especially balanced and tidy) and carefully choreographed motions give their work an almost militaristic feel, but it's countered by flowing, often whimsical costumes and by handmade instruments, each one unique: the copper-colored drums in Micro Fez vary in shape and dentedness and range in hue from new pennies to old tarnished ones. Jellyeye, founded in 1988 by Shu Shubat and Ollie Seay, also has a wonderful sense of the innate theatricality of a musical work: their pieces ebb and flow, both visually and aurally, but finally build to the kind of climax that consummates the best sort of percussive performance.

Coolest. Steppin' Out--brothers Bril Barrett and Donnell Russell--for sure. They're too cool to take a bow. Too cool to wear a real costume. Too cool to choreograph a routine in advance. Fortunately they're also terrific tap dancers who can hold their own in mock-heroic contests of skill and bravado that leave us longing for more. On opening night of Dance Chicago '97 and on this program, Steppin' Out was a favorite. Even the geeky way their arms fly out and their heads hover over their shoulders like rockets about to blast off is cool.

Most absent. The House-O-Matics didn't show. They were rumored to be performing during the Bulls' halftime instead. I was disappointed I didn't get to see these young dancers in contemporary street styles; God knows it would have been easier than going to a club frequented by teenagers. But if the House-O-Matics aren't otherwise occupied you should be able to see them when the "Driving Rhythms" program repeats, two times later this month. Anyway, it's worth it without them.


Dorothy Samachson was fierce. A dance critic for the Reader, once a rehearsal pianist for Balanchine, a longtime reviewer of dance and books for the old Chicago Daily News, a writer for many other publications, and an author of several books on the arts, she used to bear down on me at intermissions to correct my editing, my point of view, and my lack of experience. Her fierce love of the arts drove her to it, as it drove her in many other activities: she attended performances up until a few days before a stroke; she died October 26. A memorial service will be held Saturday, November 22, at 2 PM at the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago, 301 N. Mayfield. Call the church with questions, 312-626-9385.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rhythm I.S.S. photo/ uncredited.

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