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Ambiguous Gestures 

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at Dancespace

February 19-21

A showcase concert is a little like an elaborate rehearsal: all of the machinery and contrivance of a major production are done away with, allowing the choreography itself (whether finished or a work in progress) to receive our full attention. The Chicago Dance Medium's "Choreographic Showcase Concert" presented four remarkably diverse choreographers, three of whom, despite stylistic differences, called attention to the dancers' physical presence, and reflected on how that influenced our perception of "dance."

For Kate Foley and Neta Pulvermacher, this exploration resulted, among other things, in images that emphasized the dancer's physical contact with her environment. Foley, a New York-based artist, presented excerpts from her 1987 work, Great Outdoors, and a work in progress, Angel 8 PM, both of which revolved around a central image: a dancer unable to get up off the floor.

Angel 8 PM, a solo, began with a wonderfully funny nondance. Foley lay on the floor motionless, wearing a lavender smock and snarls of magnetic tape. With the first downbeat of a grandiose tango, her feet and hands, which had been slightly held, slumped to the floor and her head rolled to the side. She remained in this energyless position until the tango faded away. This image of the inert dancer operated on two contradictory levels. On one level it acted as a kind of liberating blank slate for the audience, allowing them to imagine whatever dance they wanted, given the romantic music filling the room. But on another level, the image squelched any imaginative impulses. The dancer would not dance--the ultimate insult to the audience.

This tension only increased during Angel's second half. Foley begrudgingly stood up and began to dance, although apparently without enough energy to move her feet. Then when she did begin to move about the floor, her movements were intentionally lackluster: her arms flailed and dangled in the way a hopelessly bored child's arms flop about in exasperation. Her flailing often returned her to the floor, and her hands slapped against the wood to keep her from falling on her face. This brute contact with the floor made the dancer herself viscerally present to the audience. But in the midst of all this undancerly movement were unexpected moments of precise physical control, when Foley beautifully extended an arm or leg in a moment of arched stillness. At such moments, the dancer somehow disappeared, and we saw not the dancer but the dance.

The kind of leaden weariness that dropped Foley to the floor seemed markedly genuine and unstudied. Yet by introducing elements of classical dance, Foley pointed out that her slumping was as artificial and contrived as her gracefully held poses. Dancing and slumping were revealed as two equivalent sign systems, neither having any advantage of communication over the other.

Foley's excerpt from Great Outdoors explored this notion more fully. Great Outdoors resembled Angel stylistically, as Foley writhed and twisted uncomfortably but always with great control. As a finale, Foley performed a series of hand gestures, always returning to an open right hand held just above her head. I was reminded of Laurie Anderson's performance piece Americans on the Move, in which she projected the image emblazoned on the Pioneer spacecraft--a nude man and woman, the man with his right arm raised--and commented, "In our country, good-bye looks just like hello." This gesture, with its gestalt of greeting/farewell, perfectly encapsulated the irreconcilable tensions of dance/nondance and absence/presence so central to Foley's work. It also pointed up her interest in the ambivalence of gesture. How does an audience decode one of her dances, given that she does not create an elaborate contextual framework around it? What does it "mean" when a dancer lunges and slaps her hands against the floor?

Neta Pulvermacher exploited gestural ambiguity as well, as seen strikingly in her new composition, The Mystery. This dance, performed by Pulvermacher, presented a series of very specific gestures that seemed to echo the martial arts. But Pulvermacher undercut the kind of poise she usually demonstrated while performing these movements by suddenly seeming to lose her balance. She might walk with an odd limp or tilt, for example, as if her center of gravity had been violently misplaced. (Pulvermacher's performance was riveting, as she solidly performed every move with absolute confidence and control.) As the dance progressed, she became more and more physically connected to the floor, at first stamping her feet, then pounding her fists, and finally slamming her whole body down in a move that made the audience gasp.

This brash, striking dance seemed almost to attack the audience. But Pulvermacher engagingly displaced the outward-directedness of the piece at the end with a rather tense, awkward gesture: she brought her extended index fingers toward herself, repeatedly tracing a line from her sternum to her shoulders, as if bringing something into herself--re-collecting herself and re-collecting the dance. She thus gave herself a kind of superpresence, allowing us to see that the source of all the explosive energy we had witnessed onstage was her diminutive frame.

Less successful was Pulvermacher's Roundabout, a 1984 composition that introduced a collection of plastic balls. These balls, each quietly perched in its place on the floor, far upstaged the dance. After Pulvermacher had created such an architecturally interesting and delicate landscape, I was disappointed that the four dancers--Joanne Barrett, Cindy Helfand, Melissa Thodos, and Pulvermacher--loped about so ungracefully, haphazardly kicking the balls without much conscious intent. The elegance and grace of the colorful spheres were entirely compromised when they were sent rolling into lighting instruments. Perhaps without realizing what she was doing, Pulvermacher introduced elements that demanded more attention than she gave them. Once in a while the work seemed on track, as when three of the dancers spun slowly with the balls held in their outstretched hands. Here the poetic quality of the spheres nicely complemented the dancers' fluid motion. But more often than not, the dancers seemed lost in a piece ripe with unexplored potential.

Rosemary Doolas, the artistic director of Chicago Dance Medium, presented an arresting, untitled work in progress. This quiet, methodical, contemplative piece, unlike Foley's and Pulvermacher's, filled the room with a tender warmth. Nine women in muted pastels began the dance in assorted soft poses. Slowly these poses were brought to life in a slow-motion sequence that created a feeling of suspension, as if the women were underwater. From this assortment of gestures emerged a kind of signature gesture, as each woman gently touched her knees, her chest, her face, and then reached outward. What began as a collection of individualized movement thus coalesced into unison movements, as three, then four, then five women began to dance together. As they came together, the women often hugged each other in a stylized fashion, celebrating their community. This sense of an ensemble gained in meaning when, as eight of the dancers swayed in unison, the ninth walked slowly and unshakingly toward the audience and then held her hands out, as if ritualistically offering the dance to us.

By orchestrating this work with such cool reserve, Doolas avoided the pitfall of turning her celebration of womanhood into a free-for-all hugfest. What's remarkable is that this dance is called a work in progress--it seemed so carefully constructed and skillfully articulated. I can't wait to see it in its completed form at the Chicago Dance Medium's spring concert.

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


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