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Inversions of Privacy

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NEW DANCES '90

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

December 7, 8, 14, and 15

Is dance more self-involved, less social than other art forms? After all, the body is a choreographer's laboratory and medium--and the body is a very private and mysterious place, only obscurely connected with one's own feelings and ideas, much less anyone else's. I kept thinking about the ways in which a choreographer might make her art public, might make it accessible to others, as I watched the Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble's eighth annual "New Dances" program. There are tricks, things you can do to bring the audience in, but oddly enough they don't always work.

Melissa Thodos uses props. In her very first piece, the 1987 Reaching There (to be replaced on this weekend's program by a new work by Barbara Stein), she uses a large cylinder, about chest height, rolling herself on top of it and inside it. In her new work, Corner Pocket, she uses pool cues, which call up a whole culture, an attitude, a characteristic way of moving. Somehow we don't associate the pool hall with sensitive male-female relations--it's a masculine environment women enter at their own risk.

In fact, sexist assumptions are the bedrock of Corner Pocket, though Thodos turns the tables on men a bit: her trio is made up of two women (Christine Bornarth and Tina Morrocco) and one man (Carl Jeffries). And she has a field day with the cue's Freudian connotations. All three want that pool cue badly; they pursue it relentlessly, snatching it away from one another. But Thodos also uses her prop in unexpected ways--a cue held between two people keeps them at a distance, but it also connects them. Moreover the cue provides visual and kinesthetic interest--it's an extension of the dancer's body, particularly of the arms, and we can easily imagine the cue's heft and force and how it would feel to the touch. So when the man holds the point of the cue to the back of one woman's neck and pokes her forward with it, cultural and psychological associations and imagined physical sensations come together in a particularly expressive way.

Tara Mitton, the founder and artistic director of CRDE and a seasoned choreographer, has created an ambitious multimedia piece, Complexities, for five dancers (Bornarth, Paula Frasz, Anthony Gongora, Morrocco, and Thodos). This painterly work uses color (in costumes and lighting) and the dancers' distance from the floor to evoke psychological places--as the choreographer explained in the after-show discussion. Plainly Mitton has gone to great lengths to make a very personal vision public; but though I could see the schematic arrangement of color and space, I wouldn't have recognized what it meant without being told.

Divided into six discrete sections distributed widely around the stage, Complexities has an expansive look. Almost every section is accompanied by a different painting (all by Jimmy Wilnewic) projected onto a screen; these portraits of humanoid figures hovering in space both distract from and enrich the dancing. Good paintings require contemplation, but we have time for only a glance before we turn back to the dancers with whatever information we've been able to pick up.

One section, however, bounces off its painting brilliantly. Gongora sits on a stool before a portrait of a horse/human face posed against an incongruously cheerful red and white checkered background that's like a picnic tablecloth. At first Gongora seems to be trying to escape from the stool; when he can't, he amuses himself with a red diaphanous scarf, which he turns into a napkin, a washcloth, a bit of toilet paper, a head scarf, a skirt, a tie, a handkerchief. Gongora's performance is masterly: he seems both fully invested in the mime and a little distanced from it, genuinely having fun and also just playing around. He's the perfect bored neurotic, who'd maybe like to escape his cage--but maybe not, he's so completely amused by his own antics.

Gongora also choreographed a piece for this concert, Come Pile, a likable dance for six (Amy Alt, Sara Ayers, Hector Cruz, Dawn Herron, Louis Miller, and Sabine Parzer). The driving score, by Doug Wagner, occasionally includes children's voices, whose high-pitched claims and quarrelings make a piercing descant. The dance's real calling card, however, is its quirky movement, more original than any other on the program. Gongora makes special use of quizzical sidewise looks at the audience. Sometimes he surprises us with an oddly held head, as when the dancers perform a high, circular kick, holding their arms up stiff and high--and look down. Another surprise comes when the dancers, lying face down in a diagonal row across the floor, leap up briefly one after another, like piano hammers flying up to strike at invisible strings.

Gongora's intriguing formal devices are what draw us in and make his essentially abstract vision interesting and accessible. The attraction of newcomer Tina Morrocco's solo, Rhythm of the Soul, lies in her performance. She has a story to tell, and one senses that form is less important than her feelings and the bodily interpretation she gives them. The dance fits Morrocco like a fine silk stocking; her neat, compact, powerful body fills out the movement just so, in a way that's satisfying to us because it seems so satisfying to her.

Veteran choreographer Bob Eisen also pleases himself, though his choreography has the added attraction of formal interest. Serene Buick, a trio using three of the Sock Monkeys (Lydia Charaf, Jeanette Welp, and Kay Wendt LaSota) fairly announces "No tricks!" and then proceeds to reverse many of our expectations: climactic moments wind down instead of up, and the dance seems all prologue.

Our initial impression of Serene Buick is of light. The stage lights go up instead of down as it begins, and the performers walk on in full light, with none of the usual pretense of darting out from the wings as if they've been there all along awaiting our pleasure. They wear loose button-front shirts in rosy hues, ordinary pants, and black sneakers; each wears her hair in a single long braid down her back. They kneel, facing us, for a few seconds, then fall forward heavily on their forearms. Repeatedly, phrases end in a heaving tumble to the floor. The phrase may be a twirl with feet tapping, a quick step forward with arms swinging (a kind of windmill bowling step), a one-footed hop across the floor. But it ends with a fall, a fall so hard that often the performer sounds as if the wind's been knocked out of her.

Repeated falling is very moving to me; I'm touched by the performers' efforts and by their exhaustion. Eisen magnifies the fact of repetition by having the dancers move the phrases toward us in neat, straight lines across the space, ending with a walk forward, a look at the audience, and a walk back to the rear of the stage so that the falling phrases can be started all over again.

Until about three-quarters of the way through there's no accompaniment but the sounds the dancers make themselves (except for a brief, faint snatch of music, more imagined than heard). Then we hear Winston Damon's brief score, with a kind of East Indian sound that's somehow both mysterious and comical; it ends before the dance does. At some point I realized that I had been waiting for the music to start, assuming that the dance would "really" begin once the music did. Wrong, of course; it's as much dance before and after the music as it is during.

But the music does highlight the dance's anticlimactic climax. One dancer, having fallen, lies face down on the floor. A second places one hand on her bottom, the other on her shoulder, then crawls over her and away. They move off in opposite directions, one dragging herself on her side like a crippled animal, the other crawling on all fours. Meanwhile the third dancer merely stands at the back and watches. The denouement begins when the music ends, with the third dancer running the periphery of the stage and the others not quite able to make it out of their crippled states.

Asked after the concert why he'd done things the way he had, Eisen repeatedly responded that he did them that way because it felt right. Clearly he's simply given his own idiosyncratic intelligence free rein, and though the result is sometimes mysterious, it's also right. Ironically, it may be that intuition rather than careful analysis produces the most accessible art.

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

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