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Movable Beast Dance Festival

at the Chernin Center for the Arts, June 20 and 21

By Terry Brennan

During an after-show discussion on the last night of the Movable Beast Dance Festival, talk turned to whether an event like this one, a showcase for experimental dance, could succeed. One of the organizers, Asimina Chremos, said that others like it were successful in New York and Cleveland. Bob Eisen, longtime veteran of the Chicago dance scene, said that this is a tough town for experimental dance. Anthony Gongora, a former Chicagoan now living in Asheville, North Carolina, said, "Many people go home and spend two hours in front of the television. There's no reason why they shouldn't go out to see dance." That provoked a murmur of objections. Jess Curtis, a San Francisco dancer, said, "People will go out to see dance only if it's better than the TV they're watching. That's our job, to make sure that it is better. And frankly, I'm not sure it always is."

Curtis was virtually shouted down after this remark, but it seems to me that he had the most cogent point. I went to both nights of the festival's concert performances and saw many of the performers at the summer solstice celebration at the MCA. And of the 14 concert performances I saw, the majority were failures: typically the choreographer followed an aesthetic principle right over a cliff. Strong-minded and strong-willed, most of these artists are neither savvy performers nor deep thinkers.

The most flamboyant example of taking an aesthetic principle over a cliff was Pedro Alejandro's solo Gaze. When the lights come up behind him, we see a short, satyrlike, muscular man in white trousers and a cap with devil's horns. Disco music begins, and he starts to vogue. When he turns around, we see that the seat of his trousers has been replaced with clear plastic panels. He dances facing away from us a long time, his bare buttocks exposed. Eventually it becomes obvious that he's doing a nudie club routine, and in the aftershow discussion, he explains that he "wanted to reference burlesque dance." But Gaze is such an extensive reference that it becomes indistinguishable from burlesque itself. What would cause someone to make that aesthetic choice? Alejandro explained that he wanted to fly the flag of his sexuality, to be flamingly gay. But for the life of me, I can't figure out why knowing that Alejandro is gay is of any use to me. His aesthetic choices serve his pleasure only; they're selfish and egotistical. Alejandro is a classic example of a self-indulgent performance artist.

No one else matched Alejandro in wrongheadedness, but a few people came close. Chremos's Tripwich, performed by her Wonderslam Dance company, is hardly a dance; it's more like a costume party. Three performers dressed like fairies, with brightly dyed hair, short tutus, torn hose, and midriff-baring tops, toss glitter into the air. Then they roll in it and run in circles with glitter falling off them. Then they dance balletic bits slowly and sloppily, as if on drugs. A dog appears with a bone, then a woman in a Godzilla mask. When the fairies do a series of lifts, they chatter to one another. It's all giddiness and sloppiness--certainly a deliberate aesthetic choice, with an artistic manifesto behind it--probably a punk manifesto, a deliberate trashing of technique and method. But even punk musicians developed an alternate form: their three-chord bashing generates a lot of energy. Chremos's trashing doesn't seem to offer anything new or creative, however, just a temporary high.

Some of the failures were just honest mistakes. In 8 Ooods, Curtis plays a handyman complete with tool belt and ladder who's caught onstage when the lights come up. He dances in a self-consciously balletic way to Chopin, but the dance doesn't work because Curtis isn't trained in ballet, and his mimicry of it simply looks hammy. In the after-show discussion, he bit the bullet and even asked the audience if they thought it looked hammy. (They replied yes.)

Rebecca Rossen relies on pure movement in Match, but unfortunately it's uninflected athletic movement repeated pretty much without variation. Other performers whose work generally had merit without being completely successful were Gongora, Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder of Hijack, and Sheldon B. Smith and Julie Hopkins.

The festival's bright spots were two dances with strong movement by out-of-town choreographers, a solid gay-oriented performance, and two great pieces by old pros.

Kyle Sheldon is a slender man from San Francisco who moves in the postmodern way, with loose limbs seemingly connected to his torso only by thin wires. When he begins to move quickly, his fluid, quirky motions draw us in. His Caught is a well-constructed solo that moves mainly on the diagonal, from upstage right to downstage left; this restriction enhances the intentional sense of entrapment. All the piece's emotion is bound up in the movement itself and in Sheldon's awareness as he follows the dance's trajectory.

Li Chiao-Ping's Fin de Siecle, Parts I & II is a big dance featuring six excellent dancers from Madison, rich movement from Li, great costumes by Elizabeth Prince, and glorious music by David Byrne. The first part is a solo for Li herself, dressed in a jesterlike costume of black skullcap and bodysuit intercut with scarlet bands; over the bodysuit she wears a silver apron. Byrne's music--for woodwind, percussion, and voice--balances sweetness with driving power, giving the dance a note of martial sadness. Li's movement is assured modern dance, inventive and continually interesting. The problem is that the dance's excellent parts don't add up to an excellent whole. Li never creates a coherent structure, instead letting the music pull the dance forward, and in the end the piece is a bit wearing. Li's other dance, Go, is less successful because Henryk Gorecki's music doesn't provide as much structure as Byrne's; Li's dance just sits there.

Peter Carpenter, in his solo performance Simultaneously Paramount, uses text and movement to describe the moment when he told his father he was gay. The coming-out story can be a cliche, but Carpenter simply tells the tale honestly. His father was silent, and Carpenter, in a moment of panic, pulled an emotional trick his father had taught him: he disappeared emotionally. The title is from a line that describes Carpenter's father's emotional presence in his boyhood--he was distant, with cold hands and smoky breath, yet simultaneously paramount in importance. Carpenter's movement provides freshness and theatricality, but the power of the piece comes from his honest storytelling.

The two pros were Ishmael Houston-Jones, from New York, and Bob Eisen, from Chicago. Houston-Jones's In the Dark is a great conceptual joke that hasn't changed much in form since I heard it ten years ago. He performs the entire dance in the dark, crawling through the audience as he tells the story of how he decided to make In the Dark: he had a roommate in the 70s named Daryl, a painter who could experience dance only as a visual art form. Houston-Jones decided to create a dance that Daryl couldn't see, so he would have to feel it. This performance, however, didn't emphasize the joke so much as it did the relationship with Daryl. Houston-Jones says that at Daryl's exhibits he would talk excitedly about the electricity in his paintings, because he was a pretentious young choreographer who was passionate about art. As a pretentious older choreographer, Houston-Jones says, he knows now that nothing he said was really in Daryl's painting but that he was Daryl's friend and wanted to help him. With the years the conceptual surface of the piece has worn away to reveal the story beneath; it's a terribly human evolution, this withering away of what we think we know to expose who we are.

Eisen has been doing solo improvisations for decades now. Sometimes he seems to run out of ideas, and sometimes he's imagination incarnate. This was one of the latter times. Eisen's dancing continually explores the edge of what constitutes dance; he comes back from that edge with completely fresh movement. His dancing was also remarkably poignant; the new movement was always attached to a feeling, which flowed in a continual stream through him.

Strong aesthetic principles can easily become aesthetic dogma. It's good to have ideas, but it's just as important to continually test them. This is what Carpenter, Houston-Jones, and Eisen have done, and that testing is what moves their work to a higher level.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rebecca Rossen photo by William Frederking; Hijack photo by Donna Kelly.

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