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The Human Circus

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JOSEPH HOLMES CHICAGO DANCE THEATRE

at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 1 and 2

Randy Duncan is a versatile choreographer with a knack for giving the same moves--high kicks, high extensions, self-conscious wriggles--different moods. The variety in his choreography comes from the circus of human feeling; the shifting dramas of social relationship permeate his work. And though he sometimes exaggerates his characters to the point of cartoons, that's not necessarily a bad thing in a house as big as the Civic.

Take Bittersweet Av (1987), a company favorite about the Rush Street scene: every section goes it own way. Even though the sixth and final section resembles the first, it comes across differently because the intervening sections have taught us something about the people onstage: Duncan turns the psychology of the bar scene inside out, then pieces it back together. The two middle sections feature first men, then women, in moments more private than any you'd see in a bar. Men hunt in packs in the third, to driving music; women mourn in the fourth, to a plaintive ballad. These are stereotypes of course, but Duncan leans on them so hard in the humorous second and fifth sections that we can believe they're parody and enjoy them. The second section shows a single man on the prowl, the fifth two women fighting over a man. They're vignettes pulled from the initial communal bar scene, but they draw on the privacy and inwardness of the middle sections.

Because Duncan's work so often focuses on social relationships, it's refreshing to see something like Copland Motets, one of two premieres on this program. The costumes--skimpy leotards and long skirts so full they're like silky waterfalls plunging to the floor--make androgynes of its three dancers (Arturo Alvarez, Kimberley McNamara, and Roger Turner). There's no mime in the choreography, which is as pristinely abstract as any classicist could wish. And the live music and onstage presence of the Oriana Singers gave the work a human scale very touching in the context of the dance's religious character. (Unfortunately the mikes for the singers also picked up the dancers' footfalls--a distracting earthbound effect I don't think was intended.)

Choreography that merely shifts from one pose to another is ordinarily pretty soporific, but Copland Motets is unabashedly and successfully devoted to shapes, to the lines of arms and legs and backs. The dance as a whole has a sculptural, still, even massive quality that's in pleasing contrast to the gentle, subtle, and complex streams of the a cappella music, three Aaron Copland motets.

Copland Motets has a lot of supported movement, and some of the arched arms and twining motions characteristic of Balanchine's choreography. The partnering can be rather intense, even at times a little labored and excessively purposeful--at one point the woman is simply picked up and deposited on a man's stomach, where she seems to adhere, mollusklike. But at other times the human-sandwich shapes, supported back bends, and sustained lifts--particularly of one man by another--emphasize our mutual need and weakness, even in the search for God. Copland Motets could have been pretentious, like Duncan's Psalm of a few years back; it's always dangerous to try and take a peek at heaven. This dance avoids clouds-and-angels cliches because even though its movements are big and solemn, we're never allowed to forget that these are human beings who can't get much above ground without the help of another person.

The partnering is particularly close in the middle section of Copland Motets, which was recently added to the work's original two sections--the dancers almost tumble over one another's bodies. They do the same in the evening's other premiere, Sparring Partners, which returns us to the vagaries of social relationship with an extended look at the romantic misadventures of a single character (Cuitlahuac Suarez), who has four duets with four different people (Tabatha Russell, Robyn Davis, Cynthia Bowen, and Keith Elliott). Too bad that Sparring Partners doesn't approach the humor and chutzpah that rescue Bittersweet Av from banality: the central character is just a victim, someone continually lost or abandoned. The work's title suggests he believes, pathetically, that these doomed relationships are somehow going to lead to something real--an actual bout in a boxing ring rather than practice in a gym with sparring partners. The costumes further trivialize the characters: these gumdrop-colored one-piece suits or dresses in thin, stretchy fabrics make the dancers look like Superman on a bad day.

The partnering in Sparring Partners is so close it's almost oppressive; at the end of the third duet the man tosses the woman up repeatedly, and she lands five different ways on his outspread thighs as the riffs go on (the jazzy score is by Tom Kast). Enough already, I thought; let her be. Judging from the dancers' occasionally clumsy handling of each other, they were somewhat underrehearsed for such intricate choreography. Sparring Partners has some interesting moments--there's a cat's leap forward that Suarez makes onto the tips of his fingers and the toes of his flexed feet--but they come only now and then.

It could be that the twining and tumbling in Sparring Partners is Duncan's setup for the dance's end: Elliott partners Suarez in an unmistakably erotic duet, cradling him and cupping his hands around the curves of the other man's chest. Certainly that end is well telegraphed by the dance's rather obvious structure: Elliott makes brief appearances between Suarez's duets with the women, seemingly teasing him--we know he's going to come back and play a real role, and we know what it'll be. It's a brave thing to put homosexuality openly on any stage, much less the stage of the Civic; but this dance is not the path-breaking work that's going to allow a mainstream audience to be drawn in to an exotic sensuality.

Unlike Sparring Partners, Women's Work (1990) barely has any structure: you can't dislike this African-flavored piece for five women with its compelling percussion score by Tom Kast, but it does noodle on. Aretha, on which Joseph Holmes and Randy Duncan collaborated in 1983 (three years before Holmes's death), is a real rabble-rouser. Like Bittersweet Av, it revolves around the drama of social relationships; and its pop-classics score--13 Aretha Franklin tunes, some in snippets--really pulls the audience in, especially during the finger-snapping finale. It's marked by several electric sexy/athletic and sexy/tender moments: Roger Turner pries apart Winifred Haun's legs as if he were prizing open a clam; later his hand travels the length of Ariane Dolan's arm, almost caressing it.

For most of the evening the dancing was superb. You might say a piece like Bittersweet Av now fits the company like a glove if it weren't for the fact that the company is the dance--glove and hand are indistinguishable. Several dancers stood out. Winifred Haun has a slight awkwardness that makes her seem vulnerable despite her height; when she vanquishes that tentativeness, as she did in the women's duet in Bittersweet Av, it's a mesmerizing victory. Robyn Davis proves herself a consummate clown, not only in the fifth section of Bittersweet Av but also in her "Dr. Feelgood" solo in Aretha: her flounces, her helpless anger and comic but utterly realized lust are incomparable. Ariane Dolan, who can seem something of an ice princess, is a revelation in Women's Work, pouncing on the beat with a broad grin and the fierce delight of a cat. Patrick Mullaney, in Bittersweet Av and Aretha, is so brash you want to rush onstage and slap him--or give him a big hug. He's every saucy child who ever won you over against your will.

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

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