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Dancing to the New Music 

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DANCING TO THE NEW MUSIC

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

April 15-16, 1988

In its most potent form, a collaboration between composer and choreographer infuses a work with a double charge. Such joint ventures have produced some of the richest ballet and modern dance works of all time. The Marius Petipa-Pyotr Tchaikovsky union begat Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker; George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky spawned, among other works, Agon and Orpheus. In the modern dance arena are the Merce Cunningham-John Cage collaborations. Their works, instead of showing the detailed step-for-count bonds of some of the classical ventures, evinced the two art forms' independence of each other.

Last weekend MoMing Dance & Arts Center and New Music Chicago presented "Dancing to the New Music" to showcase local composer-choreographer collaborations. It was the first joint presentation between the music organization and the dance center; but while the evening had an aura of excited anticipation, the results were not auspicious.

The first work on the program, A Room of Wishes, was choreographed by Jan Bartoszek, director of Hedwig Dances, Inc. She and dancer Bryan Saner were accompanied by Kathleen Ginther's taped collage of sounds, which brought to mind dripping water and unwinding springs. The score was as meagerly defined as the movement. We first saw silhouettes projected on a screen to the side of the stage. Amorphous profiles slowly became discernible: first a torso, then a leg, finally a high-heeled foot. Through a change in the lighting, the screen went black and the stage was lit, revealing a woman facing the audience from inside a kind of box--three see-through panels, with one side open to the rear. A man facing the audience was revealed standing outside Bartoszek's box. The lights went out again; and when they came on, still shrouding the dancers and much of the space in shadow, the couple were facing each other. As they moved, always in slow motion, their figures were transferred alternately from stage to screen, by the dimming and illuminating of spotlights.

The movement was most striking on the screen, where the bold, black shapes bounced off the whiteness. Onstage the dancers looked clunky, dull--their steps without snap or punch. Hands reached out but did not touch; without emotion, in a dreamlike state, one or the other dancer fell and rose; they lightly pulled and pushed each other. A program note said that the piece "explores various states in the continuum of relating non-related events." If this means the pair's growth from shapeless blobs on the screen to recognizable forms, and finally to two people aware of each other in the space, then the choreography expressed its aim. But the aim was of questionable import. Does it express anything at all about people, or about dance? It was hardly dance at all, more like performance art. The piece succeeded in accomplishing its goal, but that goal was ultimately trivial.

In the second dance, The Earth Remembered, four women (Lezlee Crawford, Susan Knill, Susan Richter-O'Connell, and Rena Solomon) traced patterns across the floor while maintaining the group's original square formation. In Sheldon Atovsky's transporting score, performed by Kapture, the clear, bell-like tones on the vibraphone sketched an undercurrent of tension while saxophones released wispy trills and wails. One could feel an almost magnetic pull between the vibraphone notes, keeping the tempo running evenly, while the woodwinds seemed to want to struggle free from the monotony.

But the dancers, whose shiny unitards revealed bodies not particularly well trained, put Susan Bradford's choreography through its paces with all the presence of sleepwalkers. They padded forward, they moved to the right, they did a little triplet, they stepped back, and so on and so on. A limited canon of steps were traced over and over again. Their heavy, pedestrian, barefoot stamping was an unpleasant contrast to the music's gentler, airy quality. The counts were followed to the letter, but the mood ignored. The women stared fixedly ahead, determinedly carrying out their tasks. Although a program note said the piece referred to "feelings of isolation, loneliness and introspection as felt by the travelers in Noah's Ark," one could neither read any emotion on the dancers' faces nor see it in the steps.

Isosceles Triangle, the last dance, happily mated taut, sharp movement (from the highly capable Chicago Repertory Dance Ensemble) with a searing, pounding score by Richard Woodbury.

The piece began with a man and a woman (Timothy O'Slynne, the choreographer, and Mary Ward) dressed in white, wandering hesitantly around the stage looking lost. Suddenly the music boomed, and one by one other dancers began to slide pell-mell down a wooden triangle installed at an angle at one side of the stage. These men and women, also in white, appeared in constant succession at the top of the triangle, as if being hatched from inside it. A drawn-out screech, like timber meeting a sawmill blade, announced each dancer's streak to the stage floor. Upon landing, they launched spasms of leaps, kicks, and turns, sweeping the surprised O'Slynne and Ward along with them. The dancers were confident and animated as the sound track drove them into unchecked explosions of movement. O'Slynne and Ward stared down at their feet and legs, which were churning beneath them as if possessed--they shrugged their shoulders and joined in the frenzy. But as sharply as they began, the other dancers darted offstage, leaving the couple alone, still bewildered.

Now the music droned in heavy, dark tones; the other dancers reemerged dressed in long, black garments. Narrative fragments (the program called them "conversations from purgatory") were recited over a loudspeaker; each had a ghost-story eeriness. The other dancers remained still while those whose lives the narrative seemed to conjure up walked around and gesticulated; then they, too, were still.

At this point, however, the tightness of the work began to unravel and some of its force was lost. It was obvious some sort of heaven-hell was being invoked, but it was never realized. At the conclusion, all the dancers stood as if in a trance, their backs to the audience. Suddenly a man in white emerged atop the triangle and plummeted to the stage--and then all was black. Does he portend the future, or recall the past? It's not clear, and perhaps it's not meant to be--the dancers in black looked as shocked at his entrance as the audience felt.

The program also featured Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano compositions; the Oriana Singers performed Arnold Schoenberg's "Am Scheideweg" and Elliott Carter's "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere"; and multiple-character artist David Mamula presented a brilliant satire of performance art, new music, and modern dance. In fact many of the worn, lame movements he parodied here, which had the audience clutching its sides, could be found in the bona fide dance pieces seen earlier.

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

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