Hula, Part I | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

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Joan Dickinson

at N.A.M.E., June 3, 4, 10, and 11

A year or so ago Lynn Book ended up costarring with a thunderstorm during a performance at the Blue Rider. The moment was fantastic: Book standing in a doorway, the wind howling, her costume billowing, clouds breaking in grays and blacks outside. But for all its beauty, the moment was an accident--a potential technical disaster that Book, with her grace and creativity, turned into a triumph.

In Hula Joan Dickinson invited the heavens, and disaster, in from the go--and the fact that the heavens complied with her calculated, wonderful risk--made her triumph even greater. Hula, with its haunting beauty and weird ironies, was simply sublime.

Performed on consecutive weekends at N.A.M.E., Hula is one of Dickinson's eeriest and drollest pieces. Long known for her visual and linguistic inversion of metaphor, Dickinson combined texts by Virginia Woolf and music by Eno with her own words and sounds for a challenging, against-the-grain show.

Unlike most performers in town, Dickinson has steadfastly refused easy punch lines (though her performances are usually hilarious, albeit black as hell), easy references to pop culture (choosing a strangely nonpolemical feminism as a kind of philosophical starting point), or any kind of catering to the audience's presumed limitations. She means to stretch us--our imagination, our senses, even our patience--and she does.

Although Hula was presented as a world premiere at N.A.M.E., parts of it appeared in last year's month-long "Tawdry" shows during Leigh Jones's unfortunate tenure curating at the Metro. Many of the sounds, costumes (including a stiff black-mesh vest), and props (including a stuffed bird/brush) from a piece then titled Candid Scenes of Humble People in Relaxed Settings at the Turn of the Century return here, but they're more integrated, subtler, and have more poignant roles to play.

To get to the performance space at N.A.M.E. audience members have to climb up a wobbly bleacherlike staircase, then back down. At the very top of the stairs a small altar on the wall offers a collection of curios.

Hula opens a little before dusk with a barefoot Dickinson standing on a short platform and turned away from the audience. She's facing a wall, but the audience looks out at a skyline of dead factories and other loftlike buildings. Over her head hangs a huge white ball. She's wearing the black-mesh vest and an unearthly headdress that resembles rags, bandages, perhaps even intestines. The headdress coils around her to the floor and disappears like a snake behind a pair of huge white screens to the left of the audience.

A voice begins speaking. At first it seems like a taped voice, but then it becomes apparent that the voice is live. It's Dickinson, barely moving, reading page by page. Her voice is flat, unemotional. Around the voice we hear waves lapping, seaside sounds, paper crunching, cows breathing, some kind of grunting; we hear Dickinson licking her lips, stumbling a bit on a word or two.

The reading goes on for nearly 45 minutes, with Dickinson keeping her back to the audience, barely moving a muscle. As she continues, the narrative seems to get denser, odder. The sky begins to streak with the pastels of sunset, and some kind of image becomes discernible on the ball suspended above her. Is it buttocks? Breasts? Hands?

Surprisingly, none of this is boring or tedious. The effect is singularly introspective: the mind wanders in and out of the text, hooking into this or that image; in and out of the subtly shifting sunset, focusing on this or that brilliant color; in and out of the video ball, with its images that languidly melt into one another. It is meditative and soothing.

The risks involved in all this are astounding: The sky, for example, could choose not to cooperate. It could be cloudy or foggy, or it could rain. The audience might not be able to drop into the pace Dickinson demands; indeed, most contemporary audiences, being children of television, demand more movement and energy than she delivers. And yet, like some kind of mental massage, this all works.

As the text comes to a close (with an ending written by Dickinson), the image on the ball becomes clear: it's the Gemini astronauts, bouncing like happy elves on the moon. Finally Dickinson drops from the platform, executing a slow-motion hula dance as she moves offstage.

That might have been enough. There was certainly enough poetry, enough of a sense of conclusion, enough stamina required from her. But Dickinson always surprises, and so she comes back onstage, this time looping the long bandagelike coils around her arm. These now mirror the oxygen hoses of the astronauts still bouncing on the moon, which is now the big white ball, which is now suspended against a darkened summer sky.

And that too might have been enough, but no. Dickinson emerges again, this time pulling a long fishing-rod-like pole that bounces in her hands, again echoing the astronauts' movements. At the end of the pole is the stuffed black bird, which Dickinson makes fly across the white screens to the side of the audience. Then, as if wounded, the bird falls with a crashing, splashing sound. It emerges with its back to the audience, its tail dripping a black goo. Using the pole, Dickinson moves it against the white screens, creating a rough line that resembles an EKG chart or the mountains of the moon.

Finally, Dickinson is done. And the audience, in a daze, sits there, grinning from ear to ear.

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