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Love at Arm's Length

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Chicago Moving Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 11-13

With its wind chimes and birdsong on continuous loop, New Age music seems to represent a consensus that contemporary humanity is too fragile for the touch of Beethoven or Motown, instead requiring the musical equivalent of wallpaper. Its very existence raises the question: What is the matter with us? Why do we need aromatherapy and massage and the white noise of waterfalls to get through our ordinary days? What exactly is so painful?

Chicago Moving Company's concert "Threads" couldn't answer the question, but it did illustrate the view that emotional contact is so excruciating it can be endured only through some screen, perhaps the illusion of a return to the womb, perhaps the nudge and wink of ironic distance. But in no event can we be expected to take our emotions neat, no chaser. The result is an evening that's absorbing and accomplished without being quite fulfilling--dance for the head and feet that seems to be fleeing the heart and soul, or cowering against their injury.

The first piece is the evening's most emotional. Duplicate, choreographed to New Age icon Moby by Cindy Brandle and danced by Brandle, Elizabeth Lentz, and Mindy Meyers, features a stage bathed in blue light and dancers moving as if underwater--or, more likely, afloat in amniotic fluid. They turn in slow motion, they lie in the fetal position, they partner as if wrapping one another in swaddling clothes. The effect is wonderfully moving, and yet I kept wondering why a return to the womb should be so profoundly appealing. "September 11?" I scribbled, though the work predates the attack. Most striking is the way these strong and agile dancers are employed so gingerly, as though a full touch from any of them would shatter their partners--and their audience.

But however muted by soft lighting and tinkling sound, Duplicate suggests actual connection between the dancers. From the slow-motion opening, where they stretch directionlessly like anemones on a shallow reef, the piece recalls The Little Mermaid, with Meyers and Lentz tumbling and gamboling as though playing in gelatin. It's all so comforting and protected that when Brandle takes the stage alone and advances on the audience, it seems assaultive. Each of the others takes a turn as soloist, and each confronts her audience with that direct look: "Are you watching me?" The effect jolts us out of the "fictive dream," the artistic world to which we've surrendered, and the jolt comes often enough to suggest that it's Brandle's point: she'll seduce us with soft embraces, then draw back like Brecht to say, "Wrong! Nothing so comforting, so caressing, so perfect is real." Still, when the dance was through, what stayed with me was not the challenge but the lush and tender Edenic dream.

While Brandle mutes emotions, coartistic director Nana Shineflug dispenses with them altogether. Her solo Lokah Samastha (A Chant for Wholeness)--a last-minute replacement for a new piece, Truth--was set to live chanting by Russill Paul, whose motif was the repetition of a word that sounded like "zucchini." Against a backdrop of orange lights suggesting a forest fire, Shineflug went through a series of reaching-arms postures with frozen feet, then took a single step and ran through another such series. Her flexibility and strength at age 65 are impressive, as is the fact that the work was partly improvised. But its complete lack of emotional content made the movements seem pointless. As an argument against investment in worldly affairs, an infuriating position commonly offered as a license for selfishness, it was unpersuasive. Dance is so well suited to transmitting emotions and so poorly equipped to communicate ideas that sacrificing the former for the latter may well create an utter vacuum.

Altered, Shineflug's new ensemble piece, is purely kinetic, with live dancers forced to compete with a slow-motion video of themselves for the audience's attention. Sharp arm movements and head twitches give way to tumbling and diving to David First's music, urgent in the way a car alarm is. The engagement of the five women with one another is lovely when contrasted with the isolation of the lone man, and the trailing white banners they pull across the stage look as beautiful as those in Alvin Ailey's Revelations and Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights, though their function here isn't clear.

The second half of the concert began with Brandle's Slip, a piece filled with references to the Arab-Israeli conflict--or so I interpreted positions of abasement as if on a prayer rug (for the Muslims) and rocking and keening (for the Jews). Lentz--who's the highlight of every piece in which she appears--does a fluid, athletic solo that ends in a fetal curl. Lifts of women by women are magnificently strong and graceful, but the partnering sometimes looks burdensome, as when one dancer is dragged on another's back. Costumed in olive drab and gray and moving to Barry Bennett's synthesizer music (much of which sounds like explosions or motors revving), the dancers repeatedly pass their splayed hands across their eyes in the style of the murderous couple in Pulp Fiction and, before them, of Theda Bara (whose name, remember, is an anagram for "Arab death"). In the final image, as Bennett reiterates the phrase "I know you," two pairs oppose each other as though on different sides of a wall, then merge into a single organism that struggles toward the wings on its knees.

There's no lack of emotion in Slip, all of it agonizing. Perhaps this dance is meant to answer the question, What do we have to be so stressed about? It's an ambitious work, but one that takes a little too long to get to its point.

The finale, Shineflug's Love Songs, returns to dancing with emotions held in check, in this case by ironic distance. To the Magnetic Fields' witty "69 Love Songs," the ensemble--this time including two men--couples and recouples playfully and randomly, as if to underscore that nothing is at stake. The delightful set pieces and visuals (by Shineflug and Atalee Judy) change with every song, from a child's crayon drawing of the city with rising sun to a huge pair of red lips and a guitar to two sets of twinkling lights, one on the backdrop and the other located strategically on the dancers. These narrative dances never stoop to mime, and overall the piece is fast paced and comic. Yet despite the title, nothing about the dance communicates love or sex: for the song about a pretty girl in her underwear, the two dancers wear Dr. Denton's.

Overall, Love Songs seems to express repression, which is a shame. Choreographers this capable, and companies this strong, shouldn't have to avoid public display of the emotions we count on them to embody.

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

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