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Peculiar Persons

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LAURI MACKLIN

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

February 18-21, 1988

Lauri Macklin has a peculiar presence: both grave and humorous, solid and delicate, weighted and quick. Her face is spare, sometimes stern, almost grim--until she smiles. Her choreography too has its serious side, but overall hers is a comic--or more accurately, an ironic--sensibility, a perfect fit with the jazz musical accompaniment she seems to favor.

Macklin's a born soloist--her dancing has a cleanness, a precision, and at the same time an idiosyncratic rhythm that other dancers may find difficult to reproduce. In her recent concert at MoMing, I found Macklin's solo--Labyrinth, a premiere--the most successful of the three dances on the program, not only because she's the ideal interpreter of her own choreography, but because in this dance she seemed most herself.

To a two-year-old trying to get dressed, a sweater is a labyrinth. The character Macklin portrays in Labyrinth has similar problems with her costume: at first it resembles a monk's robes, draped in heavy folds around her neck, arms, and waist. But as the dance goes on, Macklin releases herself from the constricting folds around her neck (the fabric drops down and, swinging from her waist, becomes a skirt) to reveal one of the most tawdry leotard tops I've seen, all sequins and netting. This disrobing at first seems to offer the dancer release, but eventually (as in a dream one might gradually become aware of being naked in a crowd) she becomes embarrassed and self-conscious, gathering her heavy skirt into a big ball in front of her and finally slipping at least part of the fabric back over her head. (In a nice touch, Macklin doesn't quite get the costume back on the way it was, just as one might accidentally put a sweater back on inside out or backwards.)

The dance is suggestive without offering a definitive meaning. To me the "labyrinth" was the labyrinth of the self, represented by the intricate, layered costume--and yet neither the costume nor the self is an entirely private affair: we're always observed and affected by others. Macklin's dancing seemed to express the emotions of someone lost in a labyrinth: indecision, trepidation, occasional joy at the prospect of freedom. She changed direction, looked around uncertainly, and explored her own costume. Macklin's training in mime was evident, particularly when she peered quizzically through a hole in her skirt at the audience, or glanced this way and that as if to see who had found her out.

However serious its theme, Labyrinth seemed comic in its intent. The music, an interpretation of Gabriel Faure by singer Jonathan Hart, may have contributed. Hart's singing was occasionally straightforward, but more often he croaked, moaned, or allowed his voice to go out of control, breaking or climbing to unbelievable heights. He much more resembled a jazz than a classical singer. When Hart's voice fluttered, Macklin fluttered; and when Hart's voice made its shaky ascent to new heights of emotion and falsetto, Macklin leapt, and leapt higher, looking a bit bewildered at the excesses the music led her to. Music and dance celebrated emotion, but with a broad wink; music and dance both were capable of straightforward beauty and ironic self-reflection. (I was reminded of Mark Morris, who similarly combines irony with emotional investment.)

In The Strength of Being, a 1987 piece originally commissioned by Momenta!, Macklin's penchant for mime subverted the large theme suggested by the title. This piece attempts to establish, in three sections, first the oppressive weight of experience and then humankind's responses (mutual support, self-assertion), and to resolve all in a fourth section. In a recurring motif, the six dancers (Margi Cole, Ilene Evans, Lukie Marriott, Patricia Mowen, Susan Richter-O'Connell, and Dan Prindle) stare up and off into the distance, sometimes awed, sometimes antagonistic, as if facing off with God. I'm not at all sure that such mimetic techniques work in a mythic context; although of course mime can have a larger resonance, the actions themselves usually require a small, ordinary context.

In The Scream, a 1984 movement theater piece (in its Chicago premiere), Macklin apparently abandons the mythic for the everyday and concrete: a day in the life of four female roommates. The piece opens with the four dancers (Macklin, Evans, Lisa Dershin, and Kathleen Maltese) in bed, each a brightly colored mound in its own four-poster (the set was designed by sculptor Dan Galemb). Suddenly Maltese lets out a piercing scream, sitting bolt upright in bed. The others pop up a split second later. She must be their alarm clock, for they all then get up, dress, and seem to go about their business in the outside world.

Up to this point I thought, how strange!--a dance that deals only with the practical and external: finding lost shoes, putting on clothes that have no metaphorical dimension. Of course, that initial scream is a tip-off--why does she wake screaming?--and the dance does, rather predictably, come full circle. When the roommates come home for the day to watch TV, play with a doll/child, bicker, clean up, and read a book together, we see they are linked emotionally as well as practically. And when they fall asleep (for the dance follows them into their dreams), we see how they battle, by turns, isolation and the merging of their identities.

All four dancers here are distinct individuals, with strikingly different bodies, faces, and expressions. In one section composed of two duets, Macklin plays off her dancers' differences: she herself is paired with Evans, whose powerful body and large head contrast sharply with Macklin's finer features and sparer frame. They dance together upstage, battling over a hat and whether to play the radio--pushing, shoving, then grasping each other's arms and each flinging the other in turn: a hostile movement that suggests a strong emotional attachment. Meanwhile, Dershin and Maltese, downstage, slowly don identical coats, facing each other as if each were the other's mirror image; and the tall Dershin squats while the short Maltese stands on tiptoe, all their differences disturbingly erased.

The Scream built intelligently to its conclusion, each dancer writhing or twitching in her own spotlight; and like Labyrinth it evinced Macklin's quirky blend of gravity and humor. But The Scream lacks Labyrinth's open-endedness. Where Labyrinth is a little unraveled, The Scream is too tightly knit: and Macklin's irony is lost in a context that is too literal and in actions that are too mimetic. Macklin in her private nightmare, for example, seems to look down, horrified, and attempt to brush off some crawling creature, perhaps an insect.

It may be that mime inevitably has a comic edge, and that in The Scream (as in Strength of Being) it ended up undercutting rather than supporting the tragic view. Ironically, it was the tragicomic clown of Labyrinth, the Chaplinesque figure caught in the toils of her own mingled monkishness and longings for frivolity, who fired the imagination and the heart.

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

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