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Just Joking

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AKASHA DANCE COMPANY

at the Ruth Page Theater

November 9-11

Longevity is something to celebrate, and for a dance troupe ten years is a long time. But even at the birthday party it may be wise to ask: ten years doing what?

Akasha Dance Company recently celebrated its tenth anniversary at the Ruth Page Theater in a program of works created over the last nine years. But the artistic range was narrow. Akasha is unique in the Chicago area for its long-term devotion to humorous dance--it's unusual to see such technically accomplished performers so ecstatic at the opportunity to look ridiculous. As a repertory group, it relies on commissioned work, and Akasha has provided a creative outlet for such talented Chicago choreographers as Shirley Mordine and Timothy O'Slynne. But because Akasha must draw on a variety of choreographers, there's no consistent vision or quality to the humor, which sometimes hits the mark and sometimes doesn't. And the troupe seems so single-mindedly joke oriented--at least on this program--that the effect is monochromatic.

Mordine's serious, thoughtful, long, and complex Arc (1985) stood out for just that reason. A program note quoting Genesis brought to mind Noah's ark and the idea of male and female pairs: like the metaphysical poets, Mordine yokes unlikely concepts, as Donne once linked his love with the image of a compass. Here Mordine takes a movement idea--the arc, represented at first by a semicircle of light across the stage and then by two dancers' arced arms, torsos, and legs--and, punning, marries it to a resonant image from the Bible. But though these six dancers are often paired, the pairs themselves are not stable, and the dancers just as often form singles and trios.

I took Arc to be a comment on modern relationships--on divorce and same-sex marriages and friendships, which seem so opposed to God's plan as it appeared to us when we were children and first learned about Noah's ark. Watching, I remembered that an arc is a broken circle, and that a circle is a sign of wholeness and unity. But this dance never strays into weepy self-pity; instead, it's dry and almost hopeful. The final image of the dancers in a towering skeletal stack looks like the bare bones of a ship, and I thought, "What if the ark sank? What then?" But the dancers also reach upward, as a ship's hull curves upward, and I thought of God's covenant with His believers--a rainbow, also an arc.

Often the movement in Arc alternates between the slow and sustained, when the dancers seem to move through molasses, and the quick and light, when their twiddling feet or abrupt shifts look as quizzical and unaccountable as a bird's twitches and hops. Mordine plays with arcs throughout: a man arcing his whole body over a woman huddled on the floor seems somehow threatening, and indeed she scuttles out from under him twice. A trio of women arcing their arms over one another seem to offer shelter, an arborlike state of grace. Often the movement surprises, as when five dancers at once pop into a turning leap and land in a crouch; their sudden dramatic burst creates a "soloist," the one dancer who remains quiet. When each person in a line of running dancers leaps center stage, the leap doesn't have the strained look of casting one's limbs to the ends of the earth. Instead it's as if each dancer had been lifted by a little puff of wind.

I enjoy seeing Akasha's seven well- trained dancers in pieces such as Mordine's, which now and then calls for the movement to be tossed off. Austin Hartel's Vastus Sylva (1986), on the other hand, has been polished to within an inch of its life. Hartel, who once worked with Pilobolus, has created a likable pastiche of clever animal imitations--an entire menagerie of seals, horses, lizards, insects, and God knows what else in cabbage-colored iridescent unitards with hoods. And the four dancers (Todd Michael Kiech, Oliver Ramsey, Christopher Rutt, and Laura Wade) have got their parts down pat. Kiech is an especially fetching seal, with a wise look of utter bewilderment just like a baby's. Yet it's impossible not to feel that every facial expression, every seal bark, has been calibrated to perfection--which means the dance has lost some of its spontaneity and fun.

You have to respect the choreographer's and dancers' accomplishment in Vastus Sylva: together they turn what is essentially unnatural movement for human beings (hauling yourself across the floor on stiff arms, legs dragging; crawling with another person attached to you like a giant parasite) into natural-looking movement that genuinely recalls the characteristics of other species. But the price paid for the finesse is a certain stasis, a certain predictability. Though the dance is funny, it's funniest on a first viewing; its appeal fades with time.

These two dances and Trigon III, choreographed in 1981 by Sharon Jackman, made up the first half of the program. The three dances on the second half were more recent--and if they're any indication, Akasha has now trained its sights pretty relentlessly on the joke dance.

Of the three, O'Slynne's Seven Deadly Sweets (1988) ranked highest on the laughometer. For this solo in seven sections, performed with evident gusto by Ramsey to a witty score by Michael Kirkpatrick, O'Slynne glibly omits four of the usual seven sins (of course, these are "sweets") and substitutes modern vices: fashion, gall, fame, and addiction. Each section has its own little brilliant seed of humor, and O'Slynne, who oversteps many bounds, never oversteps his dancer's welcome onstage: only the section called "Vanity" lasts longer than a minute or so, and its greater length is fully justified by the subject and by the joke itself. Despite the brevity of the bits, despite the almost entire lack of real choreography, at every turn we glimpse O'Slynne's invention and intelligence. In "Fame," for instance, he makes a cone of harsh light a tactile object, almost a character in itself, which the performer touches gingerly and finally appropriates.

The best thing about Francesca Trippa's I Still Have My Allergies (1990) is the score by Meredith Monk: it trips and chirps and cackles around a refrain that goes: "I still have my hands . . . my mind . . . my money . . . my telephone . . . my allergies . . . my philosophy." And so on. The two dancers (Elizabeth Wild and Wade) merely visualize the joke: Monk's clucking noises are realized in henlike costumes--red bathing caps that are like combs and long-fingered yellow gloves that give the impression of chickens' scrawny but expressive legs--and movement that conveys nothing so much as idiocy.

The evening's premiere, Remote, by former Hubbard Street dancer Ginger Farley, aims for satire but falls far short of the mark. This dance in five sections about the ways in which TV controls us and allows us to control others is completely predictable: its obvious points are made in obvious ways. In "TV Deity," five dancers pay obeisance to a flickering TV screen stage right, their attitudes often mimicking those of lolling TV watchers, chins in hands and ankles crossed complacently. In "TV Babysitter" the tube entrances three youngsters while their parents prepare gleefully for some nooky, miming finishing off their coffee and brushing their teeth. The "romantic" duet called "TV Lover" is the only section that draws real laughs: however passionately the man flings the woman about, she keeps her eyes, round and vacant, glued to the screen.

But one sight gag does not a dance make. I'm all for funny dances--so many dancers and choreographers take themselves so seriously that antidotes are more than welcome. But the genuinely funny dance, the dance that's witty and intelligent and surprising, is a rare animal, perhaps too rare to stalk exclusively.

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

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