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Let the Music Play

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Deeply Rooted Productions

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, October 18-20

Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre

at the Vittum Theater, October 25-27

Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre, October 27-28

Dancers are people who want to dance even when there's no music. To the rest of us, though, dancing without music is a species of pointless hardship, like trying to skate without ice: get some or don't bother.

Much of the first act of Deeply Rooted Productions' recent concert was performed to spoken text, mostly about racial injustice. At the time the problem seemed to be dance's limitations as a medium for political communication: notions like "oppression" and "dependency" get reduced to outstretched arms and hands clasped in prayer, while "freedom" and "dignity" are more easily translated into poses than movement.

But in fact politics and social comment animate a number of justifiably famous dances, from the pacifism of Kurt Jooss's 1932 The Green Table to the struggle for equality in Alvin Ailey's 1960 Revelations. Perhaps artistic director Kevin Iega Jeff and his fellow choreographers are simply not in the same league and so resort to tricks: Jeff enlivened Oluwa, his first piece, by dressing the Child of the New World (Marion Willis III in a magnificently controlled performance) in nothing but a flesh-colored jockstrap. (Probably intended as a comment on commodification of the black body, it operated instead as an example.) Jeff also devised a fancy final tableau in which the Child balances on the shoulder of the Elder (the able Derique Whiturs), a waste of superb dancers in static spectacle.

On second thought, though--and after seeing the second half, "Move!"--the problem seemed not the choreographer's ability but his choice of sound track. While the first act included music, it was choreographed to words: when we hear the shout "I am somebody!" Willis raises his fist. Likewise Krystal Hall Glass's Resonant Untruth--a solo for Brian Brooks to text highlighting the phrase "My pretty little nigger, I'll never let you go"--gets bogged down in wrapped arms and dragging feet, literal and predictable representations of constraint.

Lyrics may point the way to meaning, but they're not what you dance to. Martial Roumain comes close to disproving this in Essence--dubbed by one of my neighbors "Four Sisters With Attitude." It's set partly to a poem by Nikki Giovanni describing stereotypes of black women, which the dancers both embody and deconstruct. But Roumain pulls rhythm from the sound of the poetry, and the piece benefits from exceptional acting and dancing by Elana D. Anderson, Karah Abiog, Sarah Ford, and Diedre Dawkins--as well as a shot of music by Nina Simone.

"Move!" shows how much music can contribute. (It sounds idiotic, but somebody's got to say it.) Working with, well, danceable music by the Kronos Quartet and others, Jeff and coartistic director Gary Abbott are able to build on the connection between dance and everyday moves without being imprisoned by it. The sexy dance-party action features light-handed and -hearted partnering, as when the women are tossed from one male hip to another.

I was embarrassed to embrace "Move!," as though what I meant was "Enough with the Middle Passage--let me stop thinking and relax." But the opening piece in the Same Planet Different World Dance Theatre concert demonstrated that bad political dance quells thinking instead of provoking it.

Artistic director Anna Simone Levin's Landtslayt (Yiddish for "people from the homeland") is set to a dirge and other klezmer tunes. Klezmer is an acquired taste, but its origins in ritual chanting mean it's usually more suitable for davening than dancing--a fact the uninspired choreography underscores. Four women in khakis make formulaic gestures suggesting Jews or Israel: crawling through the desert, walking in a folk-dance circle. Wheedling music, Yiddish lyrics (mournful even when incomprehensible), and difficult moves evoking struggle without really delivering a statement seem to make it the audience's duty to care.

Jeffery Hancock's Reclamation, which has a spoken score and a smidgen of Bach at the end, brought back into focus the absolute indispensability of music. The piece celebrates childhood in some Edenic backyard, first in silence and then accompanied by baby talk, talk about babies, and random sound effects, repeated ad nauseam. All I could think was: Why are these people dancing? What's making them dance? There's nothing to dance to, so it's impossible to avoid noticing that there's nothing to dance about. Amazing, though, how much more engaged the dancers appeared when they finally heard that Bach.

Grasp the obvious and it's everywhere you look. Sherry Zunker's premiere Between clearly owes both form and purpose to the Kate Bush love lament that accompanies it. The piece isn't groundbreaking by any means, but it is touching; and without doubt some portion of that emotional resonance comes from the music.

This brief solo does reveal the major inconvenience of choreographing to a score of a set length: the dance concept must be neither too big nor too small for the music. Zunker runs out of ideas midway through the song, while choreographer Jason Ohlberg makes it almost to the end of his chosen Mozart selection for The Needy and the Nasty. And when invention fails him, you know it: intentional, communicative moves suddenly turn into flailing, jokes are repeated, and props get more attention than dancers.

Nevertheless, Ohlberg's work was the strongest on display that evening, perhaps partly because the Mozart is so complex. The Needy and the Nasty, referring to whether a dancer gives or withholds a red rose, is an affectionate send-up of ballet conventions complete with leaps, lifts, and pirouettes that gradually deteriorate into pushing, mincing, and hauling people around by the heels like Mother Courage pulling her cart. Playfully costumed by Cheryl Sparks, the piece is accessible even to those who don't realize the men's funny tiptoeing alludes to the corps in Swan Lake.

The program's other star was Hancock: whatever his weaknesses as a choreographer, he's a magnificent dancer. Whether performing alone in Between, partnering four women single-handedly in Ron De Jesus's confused The Seated Souls, or twirling a baby carriage in his own It Ain't Necessarily So, he combines charisma with directness, commitment, and superb technique. He should have resisted the urge to use drag, though; unless he's making a point about gender roles, drag is as offensive as blackface.

The concert's in-crowd feel suggested that nearly everyone in the audience was a dancer. And judging from this sample, the company's work speaks mostly to other dancers. Seeing music as dispensable is a big reason why.

There was no shortage of music--or of exceptional choreography and dancing--at the concert by Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago. A home for strong dancing for almost 40 years, it once had a repertoire distinguished chiefly by the volume of pieces by its founder, creating a situation in which the company couldn't mature. I hadn't seen the troupe in a while, so its emergence from artistic stasis may not be as sudden as it seemed to me. But the Giordano Company is certainly in a state of creative ferment now: three of the program's five pieces were world premieres, and every one was a winner.

Jon Lehrer's delightful Bridge and Tunnel, set to Paul Simon songs, is a playful hymn to the sidewalks of the outer boroughs. Impeccably danced by the ensemble, especially the charming Joel Longenecker, the piece at first seems easy to dismiss: oh yeah, they're jitterbugging; oh yeah, they're arranging themselves like bowling pins and falling down; oh yeah, he's so in love he's doing back flips. But it's a first-rate sample of American vernacular dance, a genre whose distinguished heritage includes Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, Agnes DeMille's Rodeo, and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" solo.

Likewise The Rehearsal, a reconstruction of a Gus Giordano duet from 1980, risks dismissal for being obvious (ex-lovers at a rehearsal end up dancing together) and dated (look at those disco references!). But the "Dancing in the Dark" duet in The Band Wagon refers to swing and it's not dated--it's a classic. The Rehearsal, set to period music by Cat Stevens, may be another. Kimberly Fletcher is exceptional, and Lehrer displays some serious partnering chops.

Taal is Nan Giordano's thoughtful, subtle, sexy American-jazz interpretation of dance from the Indian subcontinent. Four white silk pennants hang from the rafters, dividing duos, entwining them, or concealing them from us. Set to pop versions of Indian music, Taal is thrillingly accessible, thanks to the extraordinary dancing and evocative choreography, and Asifa Imran's white satin versions of traditional dress are spectacular.

Rapture, by Washington, D.C., choreographer Tony Powell, features impossible flips and holds and turns, and the company nails every one of them. But here virtuosity is put in the service of strong emotion, particularly in the pas de deux by Devert Hickman and the superb Lizzie MacKenzie.

The whole evening suggested that this company is fully equal to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in its readiness for choreographic challenges. Indeed, the Giordano troupe is what Hubbard Street might have become if it had chosen to stay focused on American jazz-based dance. What's so wonderful is that we didn't have to choose; we just had to wait. Now that Giordano has come into its own, we can see both international modern dance and American jazz dance at their finest.

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

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