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Lessons From an Old Dancer

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CHICAGO MOVING COMPANY

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, through February 5

Glancing through my college alumni magazine, I was alarmed by the many pages devoted to the doings of the 20 classes that had graduated since I was there. And I looked long and hard at the reunion photos of people who'd graduated 20 classes before me. I saw all of us marching in a long procession toward death, seemed to see my exact place within it, and wondered what being at the head of the line would be like.

Nana Shineflug, artistic director of the Chicago Moving Company, is too young to know, but she's closer to the head of the line than I am. So I thought I might learn something about my future by watching her very personal On Surviving, described in the program as "a list tucked in the pocket of a 58 year old dancer." Silly me. What I did learn was something about who Shineflug is: a big, bold, philosophically minded person too old and too independent to care whether she looks wise or foolish--though she's not careless about her art. She makes it the best way she knows how, and that in itself is something in a culture that, as Shineflug remarks, does not honor old people or dancers. Old dancers? Forget it.

A pastiche of text and movement, most of it written and choreographed by Shineflug, divided into nine sections, On Surviving is eclectic, ironic, and steeped in a kind of mysticism that hasn't been popular in 20 years. Veering one way and then another, it cancels itself out over and over--which I assume is the point. The title of the first section, "Keep Putting One Foot in Front of the Other," is a piece of tired old advice for tired old people, but the dancing is vibrantly alive and joyous and childlike. The dancers (Darryl Fleming, Holly Quinn, Eileen Sheehan, Wendy Taylor, and Dennis Wise) run full out; swing around a floor-to-ceiling pole; climb the rope ladders scattered about the stage; leap up at one of the Dance Center's bare walls, turn in an instant like a wave dashed against a cliff, and leap out with arms extended and chins up as if flying. The next section, "Embrace the Changes," explains the contrast: Shineflug tells a story about how as a child she loved to throw herself down a hill, rolling down over and over again, and how her "very Germanic, anhedonistic" uncle made her stop. Then she shows her joy in movement by dancing herself, naming each motion as she performs it, smiling throughout.

The title of the next section, "Spend Time With Your Family," might have come right out of Redbook, but Shineflug's story is about how family members reject, torment, and betray one another, substituting brittle, synthetic communication for the real thing. While she talks and five dancers slowly roll on the floor or climb the ladders behind her, Shineflug unwrites a book, ripping its pages out, tearing them up, and letting the pieces flutter to the floor. She describes how she suddenly felt she was falling during a painful luncheon with her sister; at just that point a dancer who's clambered up a wall falls backward into the arms of other dancers. At this moment "falling" somehow encompasses many things: Shineflug's resignation at the loss of certain parts of her life, her rage at being treated unfairly (which she shows a few moments later, yelling incoherently and punching the air), and her wish for someone to have been there to catch her--for the trust and security a family might have provided.

Text and movement work well together in "Spend Time With Your Family" but seem utterly divorced in "Nothing Is Either Good or Bad . . . It's Just Curriculum," which seems to have been recycled from a 1988 piece, Sufi Tales. Other, pure dance sections provide a kind of gut-level understanding of the issues that concern Shineflug. "Keep Pushing Until Your Luck Changes" (beautifully danced by Quinn) is about losing and regaining your equilibrium; "Never Put Anyone Out of Your Heart" is a solemn, formal dance, a procession whose gentle, strong, repetitive rhythms and motions (to songs by Dead Can Dance) make it seem a ceremony of acceptance.

Some of the sections are essentially jokes, like the last one, "It's All an Illusion," in which Shineflug plays with issues of control, purposely making herself dizzy, then doing magic tricks for the audience. (Who's more in control than a magician?) "Remember to Consider the Context," though it draws some interesting connections between boozing and the wish for romance, is a joke that doesn't really go anywhere, contrasting the performance of a text (by Jeff Abell) by a southern-belle type (Shineflug) with the delivery of the same text by a man in drag (Gurlene Hussey, aka Doug Stapleton). My favorite section was "Stay in the Present": while Shineflug destroys our concept of time by talking about looking at faraway galaxies, dancers dressed like waiters and carrying trays deposit metronomes around the stage, each ticking at a different pace, then pick them all up again, turning them off one by one. Shineflug's specious argument, that we're all eternal because the light reflected off us will never reach the end of the universe, is belied by the ticking metronomes: by our commonsense perception of time, that there is a "now," that were going to die.

On Surviving is for the most part easy to "read," and in a way that's its flaw; most successful are its moments of paradox, as in "Stay in the Present" and "Spend Time With Your Family," where falling comes to stand for many contradictory things at once. Fortunately the text for the opening section of Egypt, taken from the Book of the Dead, is gorgeously paradoxical, describing in poetic, mysterious terms--"What cannot be named must be lived"--what it means to be both creator and creation. And since the piece is otherwise pure dance, it has a mystery that On Surviving generally lacks.

In Shineflug's choreography, movements tend to swing out from the dancer's center and return; her constant point of reference is the solar plexus. This centeredness is very apparent in her own dancing: the motions themselves are less important than her absolute, constant confidence and self-awareness. Simply rolling across the floor in the opening solo of Egypt she makes us feel--because she feels-every millimeter of skin on the floor, the shifting weight of her flesh, the torsion of her bones. A similar centeredness marks the beginning of the trio that follows, as two dancers come into sync with Sheehan, whose slow, continuous motions establish how grounded and balanced she is.

Like "Never, Put Anyone Out of Your Heart," Egypt seems a ceremonial dance, with its rhythmic hand claps and bizarre onstage musical instruments: a bouquet of iron rods that when hit with a stick jangle the nerves, and poles apparently filled with water so that when tipped they gurgle and murmur. Winston Damon's score is exotic, rhythmic, and occasionally lugubrious, with little glitches in the tempo that snag our attention; the men's belly dance also catches us with its rhythms, and with the novelty of men being so sensual. But in a way Egypt seemed unfinished, the men's partnering of each other perhaps not the climax it was meant to be. Even a mysterious thing should have a sense of closure.

I don't mean to carp. Shineflug has spent a lot of years making dances, and this concert was often entertaining, moving, and even instructive in its way. Once a math teacher, Shineflug remains something of a didact. But unfortunately the secrets of life can no more be danced than they can be named.

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

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