Zephyr Dance Ensemble
at the Harold Washington Library, June 15
By Terry Brennan
The Zephyr Dance Ensemble bills itself as Chicago's only all-women repertory dance company. It's an interesting marketing approach both because it accurately describes them--their dancers, choreographers, and even lighting designer are women--and because it promises dance that's possibly feminine, possibly feminist. Exactly what the difference would be involves political questions about feminism and postfeminism. Because Zephyr's political values are moderate--they have a dead-center midwestern sensibility--trying to understand their versions of feminine and feminist is a good way to see how feminism has affected the mainstream.
Many of Zephyr's members have their roots in Barat College, a small school in Lake Forest formerly for women only. I taught several computer classes there a number of years ago and was fascinated with its social and political tone. Decades ago Barat was essentially a finishing school for girls from wealthy Catholic families and quite conservative. Within the last 20 years, it's become coeducational and has begun to focus on adult education for North Shore residents; its tone has become more liberal and more working-class. It's had an excellent dance program for years, focusing on the triad of jazz, ballet, and modern dance. You couldn't find a more mainstream institution these days, untouched by the political atmosphere of larger schools and universities.
Zephyr in many ways reflects Barat. Its strength is its dancers: attractive, skillful young women. The company is progressive but not intellectual: its movement style is modern, its choreography traditional, and it seems most comfortable on a proscenium stage. Watching Zephyr over the last five years, I've seen its artistic director Michelle Kranicke develop as a choreographer--and seen what happens when a woman from the mainstream starts to make art.
Kranicke's first stop in her search for a voice is the recognition that she's living in a time of sexual politics. Many of her dancers suggest a woman irked at having to deal with dunderheaded men. Weren't We Just Kissing?, which opened Zephyr's program at the Harold Washington Library, is typical. It starts with three women in print dresses and medium heels striding from the back of the stage to the front, then connecting with one another in a series of lifts and linked shapes. Then three other women stride to the front and make connections. Later each woman spits out a few lines from a marital argument, such as "I have my coat on, but I'm not going to leave." Each of the six women takes off one shoe and tries to dance as Jonathan Richman sings, "I want to know that I'm important in your life." Later each woman slides onto her hip, kicking as if she were swimming, then extends one leg over the other and looks at the audience with a seductive smirk, as if ending the argument with their men in a well-known way. In the final image, the women throw punches at the audience. The dance captures well the feeling of a marital fight, putting the blame on the men.
The angry-woman stance carries through in dances by other choreographers. Heavy Oil, a piece by Amanda McCann set to an Alanis Morissette song about boys who just don't get it, has a heavy-metal atmosphere. It starts with the sounds of smashing, grinding metal, and one woman in a black leotard and faded blue jeans manipulates another woman kneeling. But the dance doesn't add up to much beyond its ambience and attitude. Storm, by Caroline Walsh, presents women as urban warriors; it works particularly well in a solo danced by McCann in a robotic hip-hop style. This piece ends ironically, with a Christmas song played as if on a broken music box; strong sidelights bathe opposite sides of the dancers in Christmas red and green as they lean against a ballet bar that looks as if it's been melted in a fire. Kranicke's Who Wears the Pants? tries to be angry about fashion's tyranny over women but achieves only mild satire.
The angry-woman approach disappears almost completely, however, in The Men's Project, choreographed by Zephyr dancers for men: two professionals and a corps of six amateurs that includes some of the company members' husbands or boyfriends. The sections for the professionals aren't very interesting; the movement is stolen from the other dances but not adapted to a male body, and the choreography doesn't cohere. But the sections for the amateurs are giddily affectionate. The men look as if they've walked in off the street: they come in all shapes and sizes, from short and round to tall and heavily muscled; several have substantial paunches. When they first walk onstage in brightly colored T-shirts, the incongruity of their body types brings an immediate laugh. But they're well rehearsed and exude confidence, and they're interesting to watch: One big man has a surprising soft quality to his movement. Another man is a ringer, a tiny, lithe dance student from Barat. Their lack of self-consciousness is remarkably freeing. Their sections feel heartwarming; I imagine the company dancers wanting to share the joy of dancing with the men in their lives, and the men generously deciding to ignore potential embarrassment and just do it. When, in the dance's last moment, the men slide onstage on their beer bellies, the only possible response is a shout of laughter.
The most coherent of Zephyr's angry-woman dances are the ones that focus on their emotional connections to men. Feminist anger is certainly an enduring topic and one that draws an audience, but feminist ideas don't seem to have penetrated very deeply. The strongest influence on Zephyr seems to be the pleasure and pain of the heterosexual bond.