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Robin Lakes Rough Dance


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at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University, May 28 and 29

Choreographer Robin Lakes's retrospective at the Josephine Louis Theatre shows an artist who discovered her niche long ago, has wisely stayed within it, and as a result has grown to become one of the most eloquent voices in Chicago. Her dances are filled with compassion and a profound understanding of the most basic human needs and desires. In each, her characters are real people, flesh and blood, heart and soul. Their movement expresses the most elemental aspects of human nature. And certain small details of her dances--putting on boots, tucking in a shirt, lying down to sleep--can elicit an emotional response more powerfully than any novel, play, or movie.

Lakes places her characters in extreme situations: they're imprisoned, mourning the death of loved ones, living out the Holocaust, or in the midst of urban isolation. Most of them are desperate: they either live or die, go insane or cope. But Lakes doesn't preach about the horrors of such moments. Instead she takes a compassionate look at the intimate details of a character's life, and often sheds new light on an old idea.

Judging from this program of four works from 1980 to 1992 plus a premiere, Hungry Heart Dances (the prologue to a full-evening work she'll show next year), it seems that Lakes's dances have grown more psychological, theatrical, and accessible. Diamond Hard, from 1980, is perhaps the weakest of the five because Lakes hadn't yet fully developed her psychologically based movement vocabulary. A solo (danced by Lakes) to two passionate poems by Pamela Jameson, Diamond Hard digs deep into the soul of a young woman alone, unemployed, and angry in the city. More than anything, she needs a man. ("All this potency going to waste," writes Jameson.) She's so filled with rage and desire she could rape someone. But Lakes's dancing is gentle, almost sad, and somehow doesn't connect with the rage of Jameson's words.

Wake, a 1985 solo danced by Jessica Green to the thrashing garage-rock sounds of the Jim Carroll Band's "People Who Died," does connect, in a big way. The song and Lakes's choreography both have a simple structure: the verses tell short stories about people's deaths while Green stands in a pool of light moving with short, jerked motions, as if her body were having a powerful emotional reaction she couldn't control. When Carroll breaks into the chorus, screaming, "Those are people who died! Died!" Green runs about the stage, frantically spinning and leaping as if trying to exorcise a demon. For each new story about a friend who dies, there's a new pool of light. By the end of the dance, everywhere Green turns she finds a pool of light she must avoid. She recoils and her movement becomes more frantic--all these dead people, everywhere she turns! Finally she strides off the stage and slams a door behind her.

As Lakes's dances grow more psychological, and thus more theatrical, her choreography seems to grow more complicated and expressive. Coming Together, a 1986 dance, is based on text taken from the prison letters of Sam Melville, a man who died in the 1971 Attica prison uprising. It's dramatically fascinating, with a fine bit of irony, and also fascinating compositionally. Lakes sets up a simple space: six square areas are marked on the floor with tape and lit by six overhead lights; each square contains one person, who's isolated from the others. But sometimes they move about their cells in exactly the same way: sometimes four sit and brood while two move, sometimes three people move in complementary rhythms, and so on. Throughout, their movement shows that they're falling apart emotionally, physically, and mentally. Their silent actions betray Melville's words: he states over and over that he's coping with imprisonment, he's becoming stronger, better, wiser.

Lakes seems to have latched onto themes of human isolation, loss, and deprivation, and these serve her well. They all come together in Dissonance, her 1990 full-evening work about Nazi concentration camps, shown in excerpts on this program. The full-length Dissonance was the most powerful dance concert I've ever seen; excerpted, it's less powerful but still effective. Here Lakes seems to have come of age as a choreographer. Her characters are real, vulnerable, and emotionally charged. She's sharpened her vocabulary by combining small, pedestrian movements with larger, more expressive ones. She's mastered the use of objects heavy with meaning: from an empty pair of baby shoes to the barbed wire that separates the audience from the stage.

Lest anyone think Robin Lakes is all gloom and loss, the prologue to Hungry Heart Dances proves a mock homage to food--an absolutely hilarious dance for six serious women, a bowl of popcorn, peaches, a raw steak, and a cake. Lakes's talent for theater shines through in both Dissonance and this humorous work. For both, she's assembled some of the finest dancers in Chicago and turned them into fine actors. Together they create powerful images that stay in the back of your mind for a long, long time.

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