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Same Old Song and Dance

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Equal Footing/Equal Earing

at HotHouse, through June 28

"Downtown" in Chicago means business or government or big entertainment--the middle of the road as well as of the city. In New York, though, "downtown" means at the edge, on the fringe, in the avant-garde. With its third annual "Equal Footing/Equal Earing" festival at the HotHouse in South Loop, Link's Hall makes a stab at turning the first downtown into the second. Or maybe it's just that curators Sheldon B. Smith and Dave Pavkovic think the ideal place to flout convention is in the shadow of a convention hotel. But opening night of this festival spotlighting composer-choreographer collaborations demonstrated that it's only worthwhile going to the edge if artists have something to show us when we look over it.

Each of the three programs features different collaborations, but all performances begin with Love Square, an improvisation by choreographer-dancer Asimina Chremos and three musicians, in this case composer-guitarist Nathaniel Braddock, percussionist Jerome Breyerton, and vocalist Carol Genetti. This may be a useful exercise for the participants, but as performance it verges on parody. Genetti makes sounds somewhere between a yelp and a gargle, to which Chremos responds with hip-hop-inflected abandon while Braddock and Breyerton obediently pick or drum along. The main point of interest is why a dancer as thoughtful and agile as Chremos thinks this effort is worth her time. If she could communicate the source of her interest and inspiration, the rest of us might follow along; without that, all we see and hear is static. By all means defy conventions of beauty--that's how art forms advance--but accept the task of creating something to replace them. Simple nihilism is simply a bore.

That's what made February 14, 1929 so refreshing: the conventions it defies are those of nihilism itself. Dressed as a gangster and his moll, choreographer-performers Smith and Lisa Wymore send up film noir as they chase through the club and surrounding streets on video and in person. Though many of their movements are symbolic rather than merely functional, and though they sometimes allude to the archetypal gangster ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, I'm hard-pressed to describe them as dance, perhaps because Matthew Lux's score offers no rhythmic or melodic matrix. It doesn't intrude either, but if the goal is to show that music is as "important" as dance (whatever that might mean), the work disproves rather than proves the point: like every conventional movie score, Lux's work is background.

The music comes closest to equal significance in the evening's final piece, an untitled collaboration between Juan-Gabriel Estrada and Pavkovic. Three female dancers in black (uncredited, which is certainly one way to shift attention away from dance) enact the three Graces using the vocabulary of hip-hop while two male musicians in white produce music that shifts unpredictably from urgency to lassitude and from piano to percussion to some sort of mouth-powered keyboard, all with a counterpoint of bass. Estrada's choreography offers an interesting meditation on the contrast between the fragility imputed to women and their actual strength and manages to accommodate Pavkovic's gratuitous mid-dance crosses to change instruments. When at the end the men join the women in a series of simple unison moves--step, step, step, bend; walk, walk, walk, turn--their participation isn't disruptive but makes the obvious point that dancers are better dancers than musicians are.

I'm not sure quite what problem "Equal Footing/Equal Earing" is intended to solve. Surely no one imagines that The Rite of Spring is a less important piece of music because Nijinsky danced while it was first played. Is the issue that people don't generally look at musicians when dancers are around? Or is there some notion that being described as "accompaniment" demeans one's contribution? Whatever the problem, the energy being devoted to its solution would be better spent rethinking our definition of "downtown"--making sure that the Chicago translation of "avant-garde" isn't "half-baked."

Both Link's Hall and the HotHouse are up steep flights of stairs, a fact I'd never really thought about until I was temporarily disabled by foot surgery. (HotHouse may have an elevator, though I didn't see one; Link's does not.) Shouldn't organizations devoted to an expansive definition of movement be held to an expansive standard of accessibility? And shouldn't philanthropic entities make it a priority to help those organizations reach that standard?

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