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The Ghost in the Machine

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CHICAGO MOVING COMPANY

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

January 4,5,11, and 12

Though music is essential to dance--even works performed in silence use musical principles--it's not central. Dancegoers tend to focus on what they can see, on the body. But you might say that music is the ghost in the machine

The four works in the Chicago Moving Company's current concert at the Dance Center are all driven by their music. Each dance has the character its music gives it, but its character is also determined by the way the choreographer connects the movement to the music: at one end of the spectrum that connection might be loose, dreamy, impressionistic, and at the other a beat-for-beat mapping of the dance onto its aural analogue. Nana Shineflug, CMC's founder and artistic director, often uses music as a backdrop, a method that works exceptionally well in Windows (1985), which has just the same stillness and apparent randomness as its music, Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question.

Windows, inspired by Edward Hopper's paintings, is quiet at its heart--like that artist's work, it seems arrested in a moment of contemplation. It opens with three women (Shaun Gilmore, Eileen Sheehan, and Krista Willberg) walking on one by one in silky nightclothes; one seats herself in a roomy armchair, the second on an unmade bed, and the third stands and smokes. Once they're all onstage, only the cigarette smoke moves, drifting as thoughts do in the middle of the night. Then Shineflug enters, in a long Martha Graham-style slip, and with her large hands splayed starts looking for something, stepping and reaching. Clearly she's the mind in contemplation, skimming the surface of some calm lake, trapped between two impenetrable worlds, the physical and the spiritual. Occasionally she moves into sync with the music's phrases, pumping her flat hands up and down before her or circling her leg in a high rond de jambe and back into arabesque, ending with a lilting backward tilt of the head. She backs out of the lit portion of the stage and walks into it again several times, her mouth tugged down into a carved half-moon, her eyes staring.

In this dance Shineflug is a revelation of the naked determination to be and do. At 55 she's a weight lifter, and her back is a map of all the dorsal muscles, all the continents, islands, and rivers that are rarely defined enough to be visible. Her rock-solid shoulders and ropy arms say: don't write me off yet. Her dancing too has a stony, willed centeredness, a kind of silence you know has to be achieved with much labor.

The score for Shineflug's 1990 Kembali, a work about the yin and yang halves of being, was composed by Chicago artist Winston Damon; some of it is recorded, and Damon plays the rest onstage simultaneously with the recording. The mixture of recorded and live sounds and the eclectic variety of instruments, from drums to electric guitar to kalimba to whistles and birdcalls, are a big part of the work's originality. But especially in the first half of the dance, the yang half, the live guitar seems at odds with the recorded music, leaving the impression of some stoned and splintered rocker trying to jam with himself and not quite succeeding. I found music and dance both chaotic, with no clear structure. The quieter second half jangles the nerves less but remains somewhat inchoate, and the final image of a pool (created by some very imaginative lighting by Tom Fleming), though nicely done, is perhaps too explicitly watery, too literally cool and damp, for what is already clearly the work's yin half.

In these two dances Shineflug seems content to maintain a casual connection with the music, which exists for the most part as a kind of wash behind the dancers, a ground for their figures. But in Falls of Rough, Shaun Gilmore, CMC's associate director and other resident choreographer, aims for--or perhaps falls into--a more exact correlation with the music, a compilation of pieces by Bobby McFerrin, Wally Badarou, the Gyuto Monks, and Brotzman/Laswell. Especially in the dance's first section, to McFerrin's "Thinking About Your Body," the dancers' synchrony with the music's beats fairly punches us in the gut--because so far in this concert there hasn't been that explicit connection. Later, when each of three dancers rests her chin on her fist (in The Thinker's pose), then shifts to the other fist in unison with the others and with the music, there's a satisfying click for the viewer.

A five-year-old's suggestive but nonsensical metaphor included in the program is apparently meant to "illuminate" Falls of Rough. Clearly the dance has a circus motif, providing one or another of its six performers (Derrik Harris, Lori Helfand, Kay Wendt LaSota, Toby Lee, Sheehan, and Willberg) the occasional opportunity to don a ringmaster's swallow-tailed coat or a clown's big red nose or fiery bouffant wig. LaSota "rides" two ponies at once, one foot on the back of each hunched-over dancer, straddling the air with the help of two long, long canes. There are Punch and Judy antics and the flubbering lips of horses blowing, but the dreamlike whimsy Gilmore pursues eludes her. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the whimsy goes nowhere. The dance's pieces, including its piecemeal music, are effective in spots, but they just don't add up.

Shineflug's third piece, a premiere called Different Trains that closes the program, seems literally propelled by its urgent music--Steve Reich's composition of the same name. Here Shineflug harnesses her dancers to the score, whose bustling rhythms sometimes simulate the puffing of a train and its commanding, indignant whistles. No one who hears this music can resist its propulsions, which are like a great wind forcing the listener through the piece.

Shineflug frankly relies on Reich's masterpiece, not only on its moment-by-moment excitement but on its overall structure. A "narrator" dressed in 40s attire (Shineflug herself) explains in the opening the basis of this work: As a child in the 40s, Reich spent long hours on the trains that run between New York and Los Angeles, traveling back and forth between the homes of his divorced mother and father. When he'd grown up, it occurred to him that, as a Jew, if he'd been living in Europe he might well have ridden very different trains. He blends the two experiences, the remembered trains and the imagined ones, in this music.

Shineflug divides her dance into roughly three sections. The first shows a father (Dennis Wise), a mother (Gilmore), and a little boy (nine-year-old guest artist Alejandro Romero) coming and going on trains, accompanied by a cheerful crowd and conductor (Harris). All are dressed rather formally, the women in pillbox hats and suits, silk stockings and heels, the men in suits and ties. They are traveling in 40s style, and their clothes suggest that there's something cheery and purposeful about the whole experience. In the second section we see people in everyday "at home" clothes--softer, more flowing styles--who are suddenly rounded up for a trip that's not planned at all, certainly not by them. Their clothes, so inappropriate for "travel," make them appear all the more vulnerable. The final, postwar section seems to return to the United States, though some of the nightmarish images from the second section crop up again in the third, and the conductor's announcement that the war is over seems less than sure.

There are brilliant touches scattered throughout Different Trains. The decision to employ a child is in itself inspired; Romero is a grave, vulnerable presence onstage whose spirit lingers in the mind even though he doesn't appear during the second section. And though he's far from a gratuitous figure, the sheer cleverness and newness of a child being partnered by adults--he's often flung about by his parents or the conductor--make his appearance worthwhile. Children are so light and compact, so physically ductile, that they're the perfect metaphor for everything malleable and helpless in humans generally. The second section in particular has some nice choreographic moments, as when all seven dancers hunch over on elbows and knees, the tops of their heads touching the ground, and pat their palms rapidly against the floor, evoking prayer, a train's clickety-clack, and a victim's self-protective crouch all at once. There's also a strangely evocative recurrent ensemble effort when all the dancers huddle together around one who's picked up willy-nilly by all and flung into the air; they then regroup and repeat the action on a new victim or volunteer. Are they saving these people or sacrificing them?

Different Trains ends rather too neatly, with a literal image of a stage that blithely equates choreographer and composer, suggesting that her art as well grows out of memory and imagination. Of course Shineflug was a child in the 40s too, and I'm sure the repeated phrase "They're all gone now" resonates for her as it did for the composer and indeed as it must for anyone of a certain age. Yet for the most part the theatrical side of Different Trains works, its mime and occasionally literal images complementing the conductor's calls and train sounds of Reich's music, which are woven together into an aural fabric more tense and alive and therefore more compelling than the sounds of any actual railroad station could ever be.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joshua B. Dreyfus.

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