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The Power of Lust

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Before Love Came to Town

Robin Lakes/Rough Dance

at the Ethel M. Barber Theatre of Northwestern University, October 13 and 14

Where were you "before love came to town"? Robin Lakes's visceral, witty choreography offers moving snapshots of that hungry time, traces of stories, excerpts from relationships never fully explained but startlingly familiar. Her five dances, including three premieres, vibrate with the tension of sexual isolation and the intermittent connections of lust. Lakes's theatrical treatment of personal relationships combines with evocative, gestural precision to make the ancient subject of lust as immediate as our own memories.

Mystery Dance, a premiere, pits four leather-clad dancers against one another in a frenzy of seduction and loneliness. Opening with a bitter, punk version of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel," the dance at first reveals the aggressive, solitary rituals of three figures: their sharp, open and closed gestures become the basic language for violent moments of conquest. An outstretched hand becomes a stinger; a woman leaps to surround a man's body, hanging in angular helplessness and then engulfing her partner like prey. Sudden shifts and subtle repetition show that even in pairs these residents of Heartbreak Hotel are alone with themselves, constrained by fear, rage, and despair, which combine to create their own antieroticism.

Another interpretation of this loneliness emerges in Moved, whose title is purposely ambiguous. As Lakes performs the wrenching decision to leave a lover, sleeping restlessly on the highest of three platforms, she chants a Leonard Cohen song in an alto drone and drags herself through space as if anchored by her lover's body, only gradually overcoming the weight of their connection. It's hard to watch. Lakes captures the danger and ambiguity of the decision in her dragging feet and collapsed, sliding progress away from him. As in most of Lakes's dances, the final gesture is ambiguous, perhaps a return, which leaves room for the audience to complete the story with their own endings.

For Your Life, the last and weakest of the pieces, is the most traditional of the five, employing balletic lifts, Isadora Duncan props, and the abstractions of modern dance in a gestural conversation. Lakes wittily combines ironic costumes--army boots as toe shoes, for example--and traditional gestures. Three women move through webbed light and shadow, dancing erotically with scarves and then, abandoning their cloth partners, finding each other. This piece is sometimes halting because each dancer stumbles out of the circle of women and back into the gestures of the scarf dance. Gently, lovingly, the women--whose gestures give each a distinct personality--teach one another to open up their tight, almost grieving habitual motions into buoyant leaps and lifts that are like assisted flight. When the scarves return, dropped in from the rafters, the characters use their new connection to dance together but also return to their initial, now somehow pitiful obsessions with their scarves. Again, Lakes's ending could easily resonate differently with each audience member. These relationships do not resolve according to romantic conventions; and the dances emphasize the search, not the success.

Lakes's 1994 Mouth Solo and Mouth Tango add to the mix an uneasy playfulness and raw erotic pleasure. Mouth Solo considers the obsessions of a woman alone, while Mouth Tango traces the hungry hour of a fling. Both use food as a prop and rely on the intensity of connection and disconnection. Tango in particular demonstrates the evening's signature strategy: establishing a relationship through gesture and the performers' palpable attention to the eroticized bodies of their partners. Lakes choreographs inattention so effectively that when the performers' erotic gazes are refocused, the dance moves through a series of climaxes, giving the rhythm of sex itself a theatrical twist.

The evening left me charged with sexual and emotional energy, a combination of my own remembered stories and the memory of these entertaining, gutsy dances. Without sentimentality or heavy-handed moralizing, Lakes and her company taught the very human truths of lust, reminding audience members of processes generally hidden in some red-light district of the unconscious. Lakes has produced a brutal and transcendent demonstration that lust without love is probably the most honest, isolating, well-choreographed obsession of our lives. You can bet I'll be there when Rough Dance shows what happens when love finally comes to town.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rober F. Kusel.

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