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Surprise Attack

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Bob Eisen Dance, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and Winifred Haun & Dancers

at the Athenaeum Theatre, November 10 and 16

Trinity Irish Dance Company and Natyakalalayam Dance Company

at the Athenaeum Theatre, November 11

I ran into Bob Eisen on opening night of Dance Chicago '95 a few weeks ago, when a lot of the participating artistic directors were in the audience. He was wearing a festive red vest and his customary bemused look, and when I asked if he was looking forward to being on the Athenaeum's big proscenium stage (he usually performs at Link's Hall, where he's the manager), he responded with surprising enthusiasm for someone usually studiously unimpressed.

Little did I know he was planning a surprise attack. In Circuits he and his three dancers pop up all over the auditorium and stage (which has been stripped back), climbing down ladders from a balcony, pacing through the orchestra pit, coming in the fire door and going out the exit doors, marching down the aisles. But it's not nearly as organized as it sounds, because they also change directions, calling out to each other about mistakes they're making or that the others are making. The piece feels like a rehearsal run amok, the performers as recklessly silly as overtired children. The audience also got into it: when Felicia Ballos coughed once or twice onstage the way performers never do, she incited a riot of coughing in the audience. I learned after the performance that one young usher, hearing Eisen shouting in the auditorium, was about to rush in and throw the bum out. I wish he had. Eisen would have loved it.

But then he's always assaulting theatrical convention one way or another, often playing around with time as well as space. Circuits arguably begins during intermission: I saw Eisen and his three dancers (in clownish outfits only slightly more unusual than what audience members were wearing) marching up the stairs from the lobby to the balcony. Eisen doesn't aim for the usual theatrical experience: 1 Thru 6 x 2 With Chance Variations is more traditional than Circuits, but if it succeeds the repetition of phrases should induce in the audience a trancelike state spiked by seemingly random changes in the score of found sounds (an engine starting up, cloth ripping, crickets, static, a pig squealing). Eisen's choreographic shapes, at once soft and angular, seem designed to be cut up and juxtaposed--the order of the sections is partly random--and still please the eye. Aiming for a meditative state, he allows the piece to go on too long, but basically he accomplishes what he wants.

Nothing could be more different from what Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago wants. Seeing Billy Siegenfeld's Getting There (1994) immediately after Eisen's 1 Thru 6 is a trip: where Eisen's dances almost uncomfortably resemble real life, Siegenfeld's piece is slap-in-the-face theatrical. By which I mean it's pretend. The dancers' attitudes and personas, their gestures and facial expressions, and their costumes, which recall a certain class and era, are all clearly donned for the stage, designed to make the audience go, "I'm in the theater!" The same is true of the choreography and dancing, which are meant to wow us with speed and virtuosity. That means hitting the impossible pose just long enough for us to see it, then going on to the next one. These are feats, the dancers and choreographer seem to say, that only superhumans can do, and only on the stage.

And in fact Getting There is entertaining and well danced, my favorite Giordano piece of the three on this program: brief and to the point, with a different mood in each half, and set to classic songs by Thelonious Monk and Count Basie. James Kelly's 1990 Ten Cents a Dance and a piece choreographed by Sherry Zunker-Dow, Nan Giordano, and Derrick Evans, Chain of Rocks, are likewise entertaining--especially the final section of Chain of Rocks, choreographed by Evans: here humor supplements the attitude for which jazz dance, and the Giordano variety in particular, is famous. The company's jazz layouts en l'air, their flicked-back feet and straddle jumps, are nothing short of astounding. So I was astounded, and then they were over.

Winifred Haun's dances lie somewhere between Eisen's and those performed by the Giordano company, a vast middle ground. We would never mistake her dances for real life. But neither are they intended to wow us, even though to perform them well requires considerable virtuosity. Smack-dab in the Western concert tradition of ballet and modern dance, Haun aims for meaning and feeling where Eisen and the Giordano troupe come by them almost by accident, if at all. But in her premiere, Land of the Free, her reach exceeds her grasp. Part of the problem is a long voice-over text so loud and resounding as to be unintelligible. The fragments I could pick up suggested that a black woman was speaking about slavery, and certain choreographic images reinforce that idea: one woman continually burdens another, riding her piggyback or hanging on to her ankles while she walks. Later one woman strikes and perhaps kills another. But more interesting than the message about slavery and its legacy is the psychological message revealed in the choreography: that people are either completely isolated from one another or completely dependent. That was troubling.

Haun's 1993 quartet Remake is troubling in a different and more satisfying way. Its motions are performed with such commitment and purpose (and technical polish, by a new cast) that the viewer wants to tease some meaning out of them--especially when one woman picks up each of the other three and reorients her, a sequence that has the feeling of a ritual, of a mother animal carefully rearranging her babies according to a plan evident only to her. The Anton Webern music, with its yawning and throbbing strings, reinforces the sense of deep meaning, even if we can only guess what it is. Or maybe Haun had no meaning in mind. Or maybe its meaning is simply the nameless feeling it produces.

So-called ethnic dance often has serious social or religious purposes, but it's not usually tied to the theater. This sometimes makes translation to the concert stage a problem: the repetitive motions that might mesmerize or exhilarate those actually dancing, perhaps for hours or even days, may well bore an audience just sitting there watching. But in another Dance Chicago '95 program Mark Howard, artistic director of the Trinity Irish Dance Company, and Hema Rajagopalan, who directs the Indian company Natyakalalayam, remain true to their cultural roots while adjusting the dances to the stage.

Seeing the two forms together it's tempting to draw conclusions about the cultures that produced them--too tempting to pass up. Irish folk dance is well known for its disjunction of the body: while the head, shoulders, arms, and even the hands remain as motionless as possible, the legs and feet are hyperactive, kicking, flying, pounding the earth. One explanation I've heard is clearly facetious but instructive: since the church in Ireland forbade dancing and even executed dance teachers, those who wished to dance in their parlors at home had to be still from the waist up, so that when the priest passed by he couldn't see their dancing feet over the half door. Where other ethnic dance forms were supported by religion, Irish dance flourished despite the opposition of the Catholic church. Yet perhaps because of its roots in druidism, it has a social meaning: it's often linked to Irish nationalism, and indeed Howard's Granuaile celebrates a heroine of the Irish resistance to British occupation.

Classical Indian dance, on the other hand, is deeply connected to Hinduism. The conventions of bharatanatyam are determined by scripture, and its function is to communicate scripture and keep it alive. And because religion permeates

every area of life for the religious, dance must too--which can make it seem worldly. Natyakalalayam's performance of Shakti Chakra ("Wheel of Life"), choreographed by Rajagopalan and her daughter Krithika, reveals how codified and yet how living this form is. About 30 minutes long, the piece addresses the three activities of God: creation, preservation, and destruction. It does this partly in parables, easily discernible in the dances once a voice-over text in English describes them. In one story a king insists his people pray to him, not God, and persecutes his own son when he resists. In another, a single dancer acts out the parts of mother, lover, and devotee beseeching the love of Krishna, God's stand-in; Krithika Rajagopalan perfectly captures these characters, subtly altering her facial expressions and gestures so that the change from one to another is unmistakable. In her deeply centered dancing she personifies stories, codified gestures, and ideas that are thousands of years old.

Most Christian religions are utterly divorced from dance, if not positively opposed to it. So the spectacle of women heavily made up, dressed elaborately and luxuriously, and covered in jewels isn't likely to seem holy. But it's the union of earthly and spiritual in bharatanatyam that makes the dance luscious--and completely different from Christian worship. Seeing the Trinity and Natyakalalayam dancers together at the end of this performance in a collaborative piece--which many Trinity fans missed because they left at intermission, thinking their team had finished--brought home how virginal, athletic, and puritanical the Western approach to dance can be.

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

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