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Chicago's Next Dance Festival

at the Harold Washington Library, through February 1

By Mitchell Kupferberg

This year's incarnation of Chicago's Next Dance Festival does more than entertain with lithe, athletic dancing and innovative multicultural choreography. The seven dances that comprised the festival's first of two weekend programs challenge our very conception of dance and suggest the essential yearning of the human condition. It's a dynamic that emerges more from the concert as a whole than from any individual piece, image, or phrase.

The concert begins and ends with dances by festival founder Winifred Haun, who kicks off the evening with an improvisation, Thin Air, for eight dancers and three musicians. Led by Haun, the dancers drift by ones and twos onto the stage and begin to merge their individual movements into complementary motifs that eventually coalesce into something resembling a living organism. Percussionist Steve Butters, bass clarinetist Gene Coleman, and violist Shelley Weiss meanwhile create an atmosphere of elegant, melodious disharmony by improvising on 20th-century classical compositions. The piece is a bold opening for the evening, goodnaturedly calling on viewers to reexamine their expectations. If dancers spontaneously following their deepest intuitions can create enchanting forms out of thin air, then what is the purpose of choreography? What is the proper role of form, of narrative, of meaning in dance?

These questions are partly (but never decisively) answered by what follows. Laurel Moore begins the next piece, Regina Klenjoski's Little Kukla, by falling slowly and gracefully out of a one-legged pose into an unhurried, balletic run across the stage while three other women (Kim Nelson, Joanna Rosenthal, and Emily Stein) crouch pensively, half-concealed in shadow. The music is a powerful dramatic force--as it is throughout the program--beginning with a mournful Celtic overture by Turlough O'Carolan. As the dancers alternately perform solos or shadow one another in duets and trios, the music gradually picks up speed and spirit until it sends all of them virtually skipping across the stage in long leaps reminiscent of Irish high stepping. The joy and feminine strength of this piece are heightened by Klenjoski's extensive use of dynamic, beautifully realized sweeps and swirls of the arms. Classical pirouettes combined with long, reaching hand motions suggest a passionate gesture of desire directed toward some faraway horizon. This is consistent with the title--"kukla" is a Macedonian term meaning "doll," suggesting the human need for contact with something or someone other than oneself in order to transcend mere innocence and develop into full maturity.

Mature passion is the focus of the next piece, Tientos, a traditional flamenco duet performed by Los Tres. Al Alvarez, as arched and ready as a drawn bow, and Karen Stelling, easy and light-footed as a prowling cat, enter from opposite wings. As they pass and turn to look into each other's eyes, they begin an ageless seduction, rhythmically clapping and stamping their personal version of this timeless duet. Guitarist and vocalist Mike Cuchna strums and sings, seated on a chair a few feet away, completing the archetypal triangle of man, woman, and cosmos in creative eruption.

The first half of the program closes with Eduardo Vilaro's quartet Amor y Dolor, a brilliant, athletic, tenderhearted, utterly unsentimental dramatization of the distress and defiant vitality felt by Latin immigrants in the United States. A gemlike prose poem composed by Vilaro's sister, Roxane Ramos, and recited by Lourdes Ramirez interweaves Spanish and English passages describing long-cherished dreams and anguished meditations on "men who will not stay, and men who will not go." Vilaro's choreography deftly embodies both the lamentations in the text and the driving percussive sway of Virginia Lopez's Cuban bolero and Manuel Donayre's Afro-Peruvian compositions.

Beginning one sequence seated on chairs with their backs to the audience and their left hands tapping their chair backs, Kate Hintz, Colleen Leonardi, Katie McCaughan, and Chava Smith launch into what can only be called a celebration of life and movement. Erotic swaying of hips alternates with arm extensions, as if the women were trying to draw energy down from the sun. In Vilaro's fierce vision, none of the dancers voluntarily relinquishes the stage after a solo--she must be captured and pulled away by the other three or stared down by a sister performer, who demands her own moment of acknowledgment, her time in the sun.

Thin Air, Little Kukla, Tientos, and Amor y Dolor define the formal and thematic parameters of the festival's first weekend; they're equally effective individually and as a unit. The three dances that follow the intermission elaborate on nuances introduced by the first four.

The difficulty of intimacy in a world ravaged by AIDS and dominated by dehumanizing technology is the theme of Frank Fishella's Love During Wartime, which employs text by Jeanette Winterson and Sylvia Dawson-Fergus and music by Elvis Costello. As the music concludes, a metallic, deadpan voice enumerates the "virtues" of virtual reality. Shannon Preto stands center stage, strips off a pair of surgical gloves, then drops them and walks deliberately away. Later he crawls back on his hands and knees, then surreptitiously slithers off, carrying the gloves in his teeth as if to indicate how stubborn is our fear of intimacy as our natural immune systems break down and the microprocessor gains ascendancy.

The intense, directed passion of Los Tres is a welcome tonic to Fishella's excursion into a disturbing future. In Asturias, Stelling appears with her back to the audience in a resplendent scarlet dress and a black shawl, draped over her shoulders like the dark hand of death. When Alvarez appears, he draws the shawl from her and wears it briefly before dropping it as if clearing the way for a new life, a new coupling. Against the backdrop of Isaac Albeniz's galloping violins and sonorous, soaring horn, Alvarez and Stelling seem to stride right through each other, emerging not only unharmed but emboldened. The two dancers spin themselves into a crescendo of passion, playing castanets so dramatically they seem to challenge Albeniz's music chord for chord, note for note, in a partnership of composition and theatrical action.

Haun cannot resist a parting challenge to the audience, a highly abstract, discordant montage of movement built around the reflex gestures of her newborn daughter. Like Thin Air, it questions our expectations of dance. But even though Six, One, Four, Six seems resistant to thematic interpretation, a coherence gradually emerges that's hopeful, even joyful. In the finale one dancer after another emulates the head shaking, awkward hand waving, and writhing of a newborn, to the accompaniment of David Pavkovic's score, featuring a synthesized intermittent beeping that could easily be mistaken for radio signals from outer space. While in one sense this piece is highly abstract--the formal elements take precedence over any explicit story or theme--it's also quintessentially human. What, after all, is more universal and more personal than our "childlike" exploration of an expanding world of sensation and consciousness and our need to find a haven in the arms and eyes of another living being?

This instinctive need, embodied in the thoughtless reflexes of the newly born as surely as it is in the elaborate gestures of desire of the experienced adult, was the implicit theme of this first Next Dance Festival program. The cultural ambience may change from one piece to another; the forms evolve from one aesthetic to another; the patterns of movement shift, break apart, and recombine. But the unifying theme is the extension of the human consciousness into a new world, a new horizon--finding a home in another island, another pair of arms, another dance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Amory Dolor" live photo.

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