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The Limits of Pop

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JOSEPH HOLMES CHICAGO DANCE THEATRE

at the Civic Opera House, March 24, 26, and 27

Here's a notion. What would have happened if the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre had moved in complete silence for their recent concert at the Civic Opera House? What would the audience have experienced? How would we have seen it? The question would be useless if we were talking about postmodern choreographers, who frequently make dances without music. But the Joseph Holmes style is different: technically dazzling, it combines classical ballet, jazz, and modern, and it relies heavily on the music to carry its message.

Take Turning Tides, artistic director Randy Duncan's 1986 tribute to former director Joseph Holmes. The first section, "Adrift," is a heartfelt solo danced by Cuitlahuac Suarez to cotton-candy pop music reminiscent of Air Supply. The choreography expresses the lyrics of the song: the feelings of pain and desire that come from wanting to help a suffering loved one. When the chorus repeats, Suarez longingly stretches out both arms, then quickly but lightly jumps back, as if he's afraid of hurting someone. It's a beautifully poignant moment, but cheapened by the overblown sentimentality of the music. At times, when he absorbs the song's emotions into his movement, Suarez even comes off as melodramatic. It's almost as if Duncan's choreography were enslaved by the canned emotions of the song.

In the same way Unarmed--Duncan's powerful protest against the gulf war--can't get beyond the confines of Sinead O'Connor's driving, mesmerizing music. The woman who tore up the pope's photo can evoke some powerful emotions, but fundamentally she's a pop singer and the emotions contained in her music are one-dimensional. Take the music away, have Arturo Alvarez dance this solo in silence, and Duncan's choreography would have more depth--the solo would say what Duncan means it to say, not what Sinead O'Connor says in her song.

With his new work, Listen Beneath (and with his 1992 dance Initiation), Duncan seems to show that he understands the limits of pop music. Listen Beneath is the first section of a planned full-length ballet, Duncan's first. More important, it's choreographed to an original jazz score by William Russo and is part of a three-year collaboration between these two big names in Chicago arts. Such a collaboration is a tremendous undertaking. It's also the right step in Duncan's development as a choreographer, one he needs to give his work greater depth and clarity.

Listen Beneath explores the differences between the urbane rich and the urban poor. Its characters are simple: a rich couple (Keith Elliot and Kimberly McNamara), a poor couple (Alvarez and Ariane Dolan), and a group of just regular folks. Judging from this first segment, the dance seems to be based on the simple notion that the have-nots want what the haves have got.

Russo's score, at once lush and frenetic, suggests an urban landscape. Duncan's choreography indicates a street scene, a place where rich and poor can rub shoulders without really coming into contact. In the opening number, masses of people shuffle and bounce to the staccato rhythms of Russo's music as the wealthy couple glides elegantly past, dancing a smooth pas de deux with open movements and long, straight limbs. Their steps flow with the grace and ease of Fred Astaire, but something about them seems artificial. They're too slick, too smooth, too jazzed-up.

As the wealthy couple dance, Alvarez walks slowly behind them with his head down. A woman (Dolan) rushes by, arms flailing, hair flying wildly. A big shudder runs through him, but he doesn't seem to see her. The third time she rushes by, however, he reaches out and grabs her. Later, when they dance, the woman can't extend her legs. She's balled up, unable to move with the open elegance of rich people. Instead their movement is sad and tender, full of repressed desires.

Duncan's choreography communicates through small details: broken lines for the poor couple, long straight lines for the rich. Movements change depending on which couple performs them: a lift gracefully executed by the rich couple is somehow awkward and less elegant when the poor try to imitate it.

This first section of Listen Beneath left one with the sense that Duncan and Russo are in the process of creating something monumental. As always, Duncan's work is technically brilliant, but in some instances he fails to plumb the depth of experience and emotion in Russo's score. This three-time winner of the Ruth Page award for choreography has that depth, but at times it seems he's been choreographing too long to the lyrics of pop tunes. Maybe he just needs to turn off all the music for a while and listen quietly to his own ideas.

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

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