Dance Notes: the company that thinks on its feet | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Dance Notes: the company that thinks on its feet 

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Auditioning for Abiogenesis is more like an interview with a Fortune 500 company than a dance tryout. For a month applicants are put through a series of "theater games" involving props, mock scenarios, and assigned characters. How fast does their brain work? Do they know how to solve a problem? These are the questions that concern Angela Allyn, the company's founder and director, who says she is "looking for good bluffers."

Abiogenesis is "the dance company that goes anywhere"--they've performed on the street, at parties, in hospital corridors, on eight-by-ten-foot stages, and in gazebos. They take their name from a word defined as the spontaneous creation of something living out of something nonliving. Their goal, says Allyn, is trying to get people back in touch with their "natural movement base."

Sometimes they do this by being silly. At a recent fund-raiser for an elementary school in Kenilworth, the dancers were butterflies with flapping wings, 18-foot snakes, and giant monkeys who fought with inflatable gorillas. Allyn, her head full of fruit a la Carmen Miranda, was busy winking at the men.

They're also known for their use of props--rubber gloves, bathing caps, bright blue fingernail polish, drier hoses, and floral bubbles: "Whatever I find," says the 30-year-old Allyn. In Garbage they paw through bags of garbage that the audience has been asked to bring to the show.

But Abiogenesis does "meaningful" performances as well, in which they explore themes such as war, AIDS, and corporate America. One of Allyn's goals is to teach people about what's going on in the world around them. Another is to show them that dance is an inseparable part of life.

Allyn grew up in Glencoe, where she was happiest reading in her school library. She had notions of running away to New York to immerse herself in the arts, but her family sent her to Notre Dame instead. There she started Abiogenesis, and when she graduated she took her dance company to New York; they performed at the Guggenheim Museum and Columbia University among other places.

In 1987 Allyn came to Chicago as executive director of the Chicago Dance Coalition, a service organization for dancers. But sitting at her administrator's desk day after day gave her a severe case of dance itch. So in that same year she started up a Chicago chapter of Abiogenesis (the New York company was still functioning then).

Critics and rival dance companies have problems pegging Abiogenesis. "They do dance, but it' s not what you think of as dance," said Bob Eisen, comanager of Link's Hall Studio.

But Allyn claims that what she does is not that strange. She says she learns how to move by watching animals at the zoo. Abiogenesis's "vocabulary of movement," she says, is pedestrian. "We run, walk, fall, and stand up, and we don't keep our toes pointed."

"Angela is more concerned with the mood than with arm placement," said Tim Noworyta, an Abiogenesis dancer since September.

The choreography reflects that attitude. Typically, the process starts with an idea from Allyn or anybody else in the group, which fluctuates between eight and ten dancers who range in age from 20 to 65. Each dancer then comes up with a different interpretation of that idea. Allyn choreographs the individual interpretations, or "modules," into a whole. In a recent assignment, Allyn instructed the dancers to pick "three words that move." The outgrowth of that exercise, Verb, will be performed at upcoming Abiogenesis shows.

Even a single word or phrase is interpreted in vastly different ways within Abiogenesis, says Pamela Strateman, another dancer with the group. It is the module format that allows Abiogenesis so much technical leeway. Most of the dances can be adapted to accommodate different numbers of dancers depending on who is available to perform.

Of the 27 dances in Abiogenesis' repertoire, only three are "counted"--meaning the dancers are counting as they are moving. In the remaining 24, the performers take as long as they need to get from point A to point B, and they take their cues from the position of the other dancers.

It is this thinking on one's feet that attracts Allyn.

"If you left the dancers to themselves, they would improvise for days. They love to improvise," said Allyn. In other words, they're good bluffers.

Every weekend this month at Edge of the Lookingglass, 62 E. 13th St., Abiogenesis will perform new work that includes "the debut of several pregnant women and a dance duet with garden hoses." Show times are 9 PM Friday and Saturday through July 20. Tickets are $6; reserve them at 939-4017. They'll also present free "guerrilla shows" July 25-27, for which audience members will be specially escorted to secret locations; call 733-2246 after 7 the night of each show to learn the meeting place for that night's performance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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