Hearing Voices | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader
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Next Generation Project

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 19-21 and 26-28

By Terry Brennan

There are many seductive voices in our lives, including the candy-sweet voice of advertising. Even though we know the voice is lying, we're drawn into the mountain scenery behind the cars: the open spaces appeal to city dwellers, confined by the intricate rules of social living. But the ad's kernel of truth makes it hard to dismiss: a car really can give us freedom to leave the city, even though we usually use our cars to make the city a more hellish place. Then there's the stuffy voice of teachers, bureaucrats, and engineers, promising the honest truth--what caused the Bosnian war and what to do about it. We turn to that sober voice for difficult problems: If we cut off welfare after two years, how many worthy people will be hurt? The academic voice proclaiming cultural truths works best when it tries to persuade rather than tell you what's good for you.

These voices batter our ears and minds all day long, always promising. The journalistic voice, for example, is tough, promising to go behind the scenes and see the way things really work. It's not surprising that such voices have penetrated everywhere, even into dance. Popular dance, not surprisingly, is dominated by the sweet voice of advertising. Chorus-line dancers talk about "selling" to the audience; bright smiles and hyperkinetic movement are part of the candy-bright colors used in advertising.

Wilfredo Rivera--one of several choreographers on the second program of the Next Generation Project--has got the pop voice down pat. His Broken Glass starts with five pretty women in flowing pastel dresses dancing elegantly in classical style as three cellists play live. Rivera enters in a red dressing gown, black pants, and a curious black vest that leaves the upper part of his chest bare. He gestures and six dancers dressed in black--mini dresses, uniforms, business suits, nuns' habits--capture, torture, and kill the pretty women. Rivera gets his own fair-skinned beauty to abuse. When all the black-dressed dancers disappear, one beautiful survivor dances elegantly again, but with more feeling. Rivera accomplishes all this in less than ten melodramatic minutes, using the elements of a 60-second spot--instantly understandable characters, a clear plot with clear conflicts, comprehensible movement that delineates the characters' social classes, boffo costumes and set, simple emotions, and a black-and-white worldview.

Rivera's black-and-white worldview is the most disturbing aspect of his voice--and it may be an aspect incompatible with advertising. That Rivera is obsessed with cleanliness and dirtiness becomes clear in a solo he danced, Schism, choreographed by Ginger Farley. A man and a woman sing Gregorian chant live but are interrupted periodically by dark rock music played over loudspeakers. Rivera, again wearing a sexy costume that leaves most of his chest bare, is split in half by the two kinds of music. During the rock he twists himself into a pretzel, and during the chant he moves slowly with big, open arms. The message, about a spiritual man being tormented by lust, is as subtle as a late-night-TV sales pitch. Rivera gets off the horns of his dilemma by discovering his body, touching himself gingerly to the scratchy sound of electronic feedback: in a dancer's redemption, he finds that the body and the physical world are holy things in themselves.

The holy body is the central image in Marianne Kim's The Camille Room, but much of her message is obscured by an academic voice, hinted at in the dance's pretentious subtitle, "(beseechers, gossips, psalms, la valse, maturity, fortune, idols, vanished gods, french lessons)." Only a pompous professor would promise so much in just one dance. In this case, the voice belongs to the Northwestern University Performance Studies department: Baubo Performance Project, of which Kim and many of her dancers are members, was started by recent Northwestern grads. The department's theories seem to support multimedia presentations with a strong emphasis on nonlinear text; the politics are generally liberal, and for Baubo usually feminist.

This is a typical Northwestern-style dance in both its subject and style, a biography of sculptor Camille Claudel, who was Rodin's model and lover; she went mad, and her work was unknown until eight years after her death. Actually, the dance is more a meditation on Claudel's life than a biography, expressing two main ideas. First, men are to blame for her madness: the first image is of Claudel seated in a chair being tended and taunted by a white-coated male doctor. Although the story isn't completely clear, it seems that Claudel was a fine, sensitive woman who wouldn't settle for one man's devotion because he didn't understand her and she felt lonely even when she was with him. The difficulty of her situation drove her mad.

The text drives this half of the dance, drawn from sources including a biography of Claudel, Rainer Maria Rilke's letters, and the Book of Psalms; it's erudite but doesn't hang together well enough to be comprehensible. The other half of the dance is driven by movement and explores the source of the artist's creativity. Three women act as figure models: lying nude on red cloth, they move slowly and gently into many classically depicted shapes. Claudel molds them as she would a model, though the man who's Claudel's lover also adjusts their positions and eventually lies with each of the women. Only one line of text illuminates the movement: "Sculpture is about the impulse to touch." And the women's shapes are so exquisitely vulnerable that our natural response is to comfort through touch.

The textual half of The Camille Room tries to lecture us and fails: its logic is never very clear. But the movement half of the dance persuades us, shows what it is to be a sculptor of the human form.

The third voice at this concert was the voice of fine art. If the advertising voice tries to move us through intense emotion, and the academic voice tries to persuade us through logic, then the fine art voice slowly builds up emotional truths. A quiet voice, it doesn't compel us to action as the other two do. Instead emotional truths accumulate in places where you're not looking; they're never going to show up on a daytime talk show. Many dances spoken in this voice seem diffident and inward, which is what happens when the accumulation of truths is incomplete.

In Loop Troop's Submerged, choreographed by Anthony Gongora, the accumulation of truths has led to a lovely structure and a lovely dance, but Gongora may not have gone quite far enough. It's set to Gavin Bryar's The Sinking of the Titanic, which moves from mournful sea bells and creaking ropes to strings and a distant voice; as the ship falls beneath the waves, the music becomes richer and more meaningful. Gongora follows the path of the music, making the dance a story of the sinking of a woman (Carrie Hanson). Hanson is surrounded by four other dancers who sometimes ignore her, sometimes protect her, and sometimes dance with her. At one moment all the dancers disappear into an upstage corner, and Hanson crosses the stage alone on the diagonal in a series of stag leaps. Suddenly the other four bound out in stag leaps, too. She switches to the other diagonal, doing stag leaps through the quartet, almost colliding with them. At the end, after she collapses completely, they hold her upright and mold her every motion. I was moved by the details of how a sinking woman tries to keep herself apart from a group, and how she comes to depend on them. But I didn't know who the woman was or why she was sinking. The emotional truths remain incomplete. And Hanson's own choreography in Flock, a quartet set to original music by Susan Ferrari Dwyer, never gels.

The journalistic voice, my own voice, is related to tracking, hunting, and capturing. Aggressive, it seeks to persuade you through the thrill of the chase that you've gotten to the meat of the matter. Remember, though, that mine is just another wheedling voice in the everyday chorus.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Wilfredo Rivera photo (uncredited).

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