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Hurrying Through History

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Coming Forth by Day

Chicago Moving Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 12-14

By Laura Molzahn

What Nana decides to do, Nana does. That much is plain in her resolute musculature and the fact that she's still dancing, though she's past 60 and requires surgery on one knee. It's plain in her intense, monolithic presence when performing: her conviction runs like a current through her arms, torso, and sturdily planted feet. She's described herself as more a dancer than a choreographer, and dancers need willpower, a whole lot of it--they must understand that the soul makes the body. Or, as it's put in the voice-over texts of the Chicago Moving Company's new evening-length piece, the body is the record of the soul. Hence the god Osiris, who's killed and cut up into 14 pieces, can be restored by the power of love and breath.

But not even Nana Shineflug--artistic director of CMC, which celebrated its 25th anniversary with performances at the Dance Center of Columbia College--can encompass issues of life and death, transformation and transcendence, body and soul, in a 45-minute piece, as she tries to do in Coming Forth by Day. Despite its beauty, watching the piece is like seeing a condensed history of the universe on fast-forward.

Shineflug begins with the Egyptian Book of the Dead (in a new translation by Normandi Ellis) and a few hieroglyphs expressing such ideas as praise, salutation, and rejoicing. The voice-overs emphasize the Egyptian concept that what can be spoken exists, what exists can be remembered, and what is remembered lives forever. Hieroglyphs--providing a record of a culture 5,000 years old--are sometimes based on poses of the human body, surely an appealing concept to a dancer. But Shineflug wisely makes no attempt to encapsulate the culture, instead picking and choosing from its symbols and rites to explore human life--where we live, between heaven and earth.

Of the eight sections (plus transitional bits) that make up Coming Forth by Day, only a few relate tales from Egyptian mythology. In one, brothers Osiris and Set and sisters Isis and Nephtys divide up the land, but Set and Nephtys destroy their half (poetically expressed in the dancers' shredding of long paper pennants). Envious of the abundance of his brother's land, Set kills Osiris, who's then revived by the love of Isis. One of Shineflug's main themes is responsibility: What you sow, you eat. If you sow nothing, you eat nothing. In a later section, "Fish Stink," Set reappears as a fish seduced by a sexy water nymph. Opening with dancers holding the fish, their backs to us and their cheeks jiggling, this section is the funny one, featuring a vaudeville siren in a silvery bra, spastic dancing, and irreverent advice in the text about how you should look where you're stepping around decomposing fish.

Shineflug aims for and achieves a variety of ideas and kinetic textures. The devotional first section, "Sunrise," is slow and filled with repeated motions and shapes. But the next, "Days on Earth," is an explosively kinetic dance as only Shineflug can make them. Shineflug's solo, "Becoming Ptah," rises above the rest of the piece like a monumental statue, distinguished by her focused dancing and Jeff Abell's text, which recapitulates many of the work's ideas in liturgical-sounding lines.

But the sections don't come together in the way Shineflug presumably wants them to. I was particularly troubled by the short shrift given evil: a section called "Becoming a Crocodile" runs past us the ideas that life is change, that destruction is necessary for creation, that the devouring jaws of the crocodile are the entrance to new life. Meanwhile several dancers enact the crocodile's aching grimace and sinuous, mechanical movements (Holly Quinn makes an especially impressive reptile). Shineflug's brief reference to evil and destruction is perhaps the result of her worldview, which, like Milton's in Paradise Lost, is essentially comic: the end is known, God will provide, all is for the best. This may be true, but it doesn't make for great drama. Unless you're Milton writing a poem of several thousand lines--and some would disagree on that.

Much of Coming Forth by Day is beautiful, thanks in part to Shineflug's collaborators. Louise Cloutier's vocal improvisations run a gamut of emotions and styles, from scat singing to eerie, otherworldly dirges. Suzanne Cohan-Lange's and Shineflug's slides of artifacts and nature are appropriately abstract but evocative, and the texts chosen or written for the piece are fine. Ken Bowen's lighting transforms mood and setting, washing over Lydia Charaf's colorful and sharply imagined costumes to give them even more nuance: they make the dancers as exotic and familiar as storybook figures. But Shineflug's whole concept seems a little awry. A consummate teacher of dance, she seeks to pass along her wisdom and experience as a dancer--and mystic. But to quote another mystical teacher, William Blake, it's easier for us "To see a world in a grain of sand / And a heaven in a wild flower." Think small.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): performance photo by William Frederking.

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