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Orchestrated Chaos


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at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 24-26

Much as I liked the much-touted Out of Season: The Athletes' Project, shown at the Dance Center, it isn't much of a dance. And in a way Chicagoan-turned-New Yorker David Dorfman isn't much of a choreographer, creating rough, athletic phrases bursting with energy but not much artistry. His pieces tend to go on and on--perhaps the result of a superabundant imagination. Still, I don't want to sell this quirky, talented writer and spunky dancer short: he's got a strong sense of drama and a positive gift for comedy, and he seems equally driven by a wish for intimacy and despair at our separateness.

It seemed everyone in the theater, not just the friends and relatives of the 24 mostly young area athletes who performed Out of Season, liked this work: there's something fresh, clean, and uncomplicated about athletics despite the not-so-noble competition and aggression. Dorfman doesn't ignore these--the piece opens with audience plants loudly insisting "I could do that!" as they watch a guy in a handstand, and ends with the audience pelting Dorfman with Ping-Pong balls--but he also pays attention to the teamwork, the mutual concern. The piece is just plain fun, with its slight, nonthreatening aura of audience involvement, its pleasing mix of athletic moves, from break-dance spins to cheerleading pyramids, and Dorfman's ludicrous costume: assorted protective gear, including one helmet on his head and a couple more strapped around his middle, one on each love handle.

But on a more serious level the dance fails. Each performer recites his or her name and sports activities aloud, then whispers three words: "scared, nervous, worried," for example. Some of these three-word bits are just jokes--one man steps to the microphone carrying a woman and says, "heavy, heavy, heavy"--but most seem designed to communicate that athletes have emotional lives too. This we know already, however, and all too well. Consider the way U.S. television reporters hounded Oksana Baiul about her "feelings" after she won the gold medal. Certain images in Out of Season, especially those taken from wrestling, succinctly express the closeness, even the love, between athletes who seem to be trying to kill each other, but I think we know about this too. And a sequence in which performers hurdle others crouched on the floor raises issues of domination and possible harm to others that are beside the point when the hurdle is an inanimate object. Maybe it's impossible to create a piece that's truly about sports and truly satisfying as a dance: to sports fans at least, sports are about winning, which means numbers--two outs, man on third, top of the ninth in the final game of the World Series. An athlete's movement may be briefly glorified by slowmotion television replays, but in itself that movement means nothing, to sports fans or dance enthusiasts.

A much more satisfying piece on similar issues is The Partial Truth, an ensemble work that explores what it means to be an ensemble. As he shows in Out of Season, Dorfman is a master of orchestrated chaos; here the six members of the Dorfman company toss a long clear rod filled with a sloshing liquid back and forth, dashing around in what must be prearranged patterns. Even more interesting are the emotions involved in joining or separating from a group; oddly, both contact and isolation seem almost accidental, an aspect of the chaos. In the opening one woman (Lisa Race) repeats a spectacularly fluid fall, kicking one leg up, arcing her torso down, and gliding to the floor nose first like a dolphin into water. But after a while her repeated movement seems compulsive and lonely; it's a relief when another dancer scoots under her to break her fall. Two dancers, one held upside down by a third, kiss like the couple in Chagall's The Birthday, lips alone meeting in air, then are pulled apart just in time for a fourth dancer to hurtle between them.

Despite all the cradling and kissing in The Partial Truth, it's not a reassuring work--there's too much separateness and too much anxiety about separation. In a line of three dancers, the one trying to move away has her foot grabbed so she can't; a dancer who rolls out of the group of six is an object of extreme concern to the others, who try to ignore her but end up hauling her back into their games. In a moving yet unsentimental sequence near the end, all six dancers take on the task of holding up the rod together. At first they fail because though they act in unison, rolling up their eyes and falling backward, they haven't coordinated their efforts. Repeated attempts evolve in the paradoxical direction of the dancers doing their own things, even running away from the group, yet cooperating to hold the rod aloft. Finally they hold it up by failing into two piles of three-not elegant choreography, but emotionally strong stuff. Yet the dance ends as it began, the group of six broken into discrete ones and twos, Race diving to the floor again with no one to stop her.

Best about another ensemble piece, Kilter, is a goofy polka danced by Dorfman and Tom Thayer: its air of hilarity was repeated in two duets on

the Saturday night program, Horn and Bull, created and performed by Dorfman and saxophonist-composer-performance artist Dan Froot. Both pieces are very serious but very funny, expressing what is essentially a tragicomic vision of human relationship. In Horn, which premiered at the Dance Center in 1990, the two men noodle together on their saxes, torment each other by popping the other's instrument out of his mouth midblast, hunger for their instruments like babies for the bottle. However problematic and antagonistic, the relationship between the men is strong and real, and we feel genuinely bereft when Dorfman's left onstage blowing alone and noiselessly.

Bull, a Chicago premiere, substitutes bullhorns for saxophones, but both pieces rely on obvious phallic associations, both explore getting and staying together. Bull, which has a lot of text where Horn has none, seems preoccupied with bullshit--the lukewarm way we analyze and verbalize our emotions almost as a substitute for the real thing. Where Horn takes for granted the strength of a relationship that breaks apart--the two men look like gladiators, bare-chested and wearing kilts--Bull shows the difficulty of establishing a relationship at all: here the two wear tuxes, suggesting less familiarity, a relationship in the making.

As Bull opens, Froot "interviews" Dorfman via bullhorn about this concert and the three-week workshop with the athletes preceding it: Froot badgers, Dorfman evades, admitting only that he feels "a little stressed." The interview ends in a standoff, one ordering the other: "Hold it right there." "Put the bullhorn down." It becomes obvious that the bullhorns are distancing devices, ways of mediating feelings no matter what's being said; later they seem to represent the sexual fantasies that may appear to bring two people together but are ultimately divisive. The two men take turns politely slapping each other, politely commenting on the blows; yet there's no genuine intimacy. That comes only when Froot swings and Dorfman backs away. Bull is fascinating for the way it establishes emotional facades then breaks them, unpredictably but also unmistakablygenuine connection becomes all the more valuable because it's so infrequent. The ending, in which a slap and flinch turn into a caress and the men slowly lower their bullhorns, was more hopeful than anything else in the concert, no matter how buoyant and humorous.

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

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