Ruth Page Dance Series
Especially Tap Chicago, the Moose Project, Same Planet Different World, and Tango 21
at Northeastern Illinois University, January 30 and 31
By Laura Molzahn
Watching a program of ballet, modern, tap, and tango on the first of three weekends in the Ruth Page Dance Series, I couldn't help but remark that the form of the dance had much less impact on me than the spirit of the people dancing. Perhaps the distinction we draw between form and substance, between the container and the contained, comes from the figure of Christ, the Western metaphor for divinity poured into human shape. At any rate, it's much more difficult to pin down the spark that animates some performances and not others than it is to identify structures and analyze meaning.
Sometimes, of course, the form energizes--or enervates--the performers. Consider the two pieces on the program by Especially Tap Chicago. The choreography (by Lane Alexander and Bruce Stegmann) for the three sections of O as in Oscar--a male duet, a female duet, and a trio--is a bit stodgy despite the occasional innovation, like a slow-motion run backward. Only a small, weak fire has been lit under company members Stegmann, Julie Cartier, Jay Fagan, and Sarah Savelli. But these dancers come alive in the group's a cappella premiere, Rhythm by 6, which they choreographed together (apprentices Jennifer Strickradt and Andy Tomlinson join them as performers). The footwork is more intricate and the rhythms are more complex than in the earlier piece, but perhaps what the audience is responding to is not more interesting choreography but the artists' greater pleasure in their work.
Tango 21 hopes to bring the tango into the 21st century with what it calls its "refined," distilled approach to the form. But that abstraction proved deadly to the company's performance of Jorge Niedas's premiere, Requiem. Slow moving and too long, this suite of six dances is marked by stiff, stagy limbs. The dancers seem more concerned with horsing props around the stage--chairs, a suitcase, a cape (the "cloak of dawn," according to the program)--than they are with infusing old forms with new energy. Even an innovative gesture in which two dancers hold each other's heads, framing and supporting them, seems not tender or brutal but calculated and stiff. It's as if an exaggerated attention to form had made the dancers forget that what's important is not the shape but what is shaped.
I suggested to my companion that perhaps the tango is more fun to do than watch. He didn't think that was the problem, and in truth the five Tango 21 dancers didn't seem to be having much fun. Of course, the dancers' level of technical accomplishment often affects their enjoyment.
The performers in the Moose Project, a new ballet company headed by Paul Abrahamson, have no problems on that score. And Abrahamson's suite of six dances, also set to tango music, is formally innovative, taking both ballet and the tango in new directions. The gently comic Scenes With a Rose relies on traditional forms for its humor--the dancers seem to take pleasure in the way Abrahamson violates expectations. Moreover, he's not afraid to be silly, and his courage pays off in the second duet. The first, a spoof of young love, begins on an almost accidental note, as boy and girl absentmindedly fall into their steps together. In the second duet Abrahamson takes serendipity a step further: the man (Abrahamson) seems to snag his partner (Erin Carper) off the street, terrifying her. As he manipulates her legs in giant, awkward ronds de jambe or twirls her horizontally, her jaw drops and her eyes widen in sheer dazed horror. Cleverly heightening and parodying the woman's traditional passivity, Abrahamson later turns the tables on the man: by the end of the duet he's the one who's terrified.
The brief sketch that opens Scenes With a Rose is perhaps too silly, and the setup for the joke in the fifth dance--or, more accurately, sketch with dancing--is drawn out and cliched, though the punch line hits hard. Yet the more serious dances in the suite (a modernized tango and a classic romantic duet that plays off ballroom dance) reveal Abrahamson's solid grasp of choreography. And I can't remember when I've laughed more genuinely at a dance performance than I did at the dancers' looks of terror in the second duet. Abrahamson is someone to watch, and a sense of his unique comic vision and of the soundness of his choreography seems to have galvanized his seven dancers.
What blew me away on this program, however, was the nine-month-old modern group Same Planet Different World. Though company member Jason Ohlberg is credited with the choreography of the three pieces performed, he and the other two members--Alicia Elliott and Leif Tellmann--conveyed such a deep commitment to the work and to one another that it was hard to believe they hadn't created the pieces together.
Their first two pieces had an immediate, electric effect. Elliott dances the solo View From a Grain of Sand with great musicality; the music itself, by Rusted Root, is emotionally charged, energizing her movements and grounding them in its words and melodies. Ohlberg and Tellmann in The Bella Pictures, a duet set to Vivaldi, easily capture the composer's simultaneous seriousness and profound lightheartedness, as if their own energy could overcome any circumstances, however tragic. The combination of repetition and surprise in the choreography satisfies, and the men create a spoonlike connection between them that seems the result of real intimacy, not a simulation.
Trinity, a premiere, multiplies that sense of connection, spelling out a complex variation on intimacy. Loosely based on Sartre's No Exit and set to music by Arvo PŠrt, it opens with the three dancers seated at a table facing us. Ohlberg raises his arms, then hunches over the table; Elliott turns as if to comfort him; Tellmann draws her aside to whisper in her ear. This phrase, repeated with variations, establishes the emotional facts of a triangle, in which every alliance of two threatens the odd man out. What's remarkable about Trinity, however, is not so much the psychological dynamic that seems to be its subject but the profound sense of loving connection between the performers despite that dynamic--or because of it (one assumes the dance is somewhat autobiographical). The choreography is accomplished: a movement in which the dancers slide from their chairs to roll under the table cleverly undercuts the bureaucratic sense of propriety established by their sitting in a row. Yet the images of the three sandwiched together or exploding or dissolving into two-against-one formations wouldn't be the same without the sense we have of the dancers' underlying connection.
I don't know how we perceive these invisible, intangible things. Perhaps it's through the intensity or integrity of gazes or the vitality of muscles tensed by emotion, not expertise. But we do perceive them, and that substance matters much more than the forms into which it's poured.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Especially Tap Chicago photo by William Frederking; Tango 21 photo by Jennifer Girard.