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Among Willows

Christine Bornarth, Julie Hopkins, and Julia Mayer

at Glade Hall, June 6-8

By Laura Molzahn

It's common to compare contemporary theater with ancient religious ritual but much less common to see an event that actually recalls those roots. Like many religious services today, theatrical events often have more to do with seeing and being seen--gotta get those grants, gotta have someplace to go on a Friday night--than with sharing a spiritual experience.

"Among Willows" wasn't liturgical dance--but I could have sworn it was. The concert itself commemorated a solemn occasion, the inauguration of a new performance space: Glade Hall, part of Nazareth United Church of Christ, is an upstairs space in east Logan Square that's been polished and painted and cleaned in honor of its new role. But the concert's sense of sanctity sprang mostly from its planning and structure, reflecting a wish by its three young choreographers--all talented dancers--to create a unified experience for the audience. In the process they staged a kind of ritual, a combination of magic and everyday life.

The concert was divided into three solos, one by each dancer-choreographer, and a final collaborative trio, but the dividing lines were fudged: a brief trio opened the program, and musical interludes bridged the gaps between the sections as the "stage crew"--mostly performers not performing at the moment--changed the set pieces. Their bustling reminded me of acolytes who scurry for water, towels, wine, and bread while we focus on the main event, the prayers and music of the service; we're only human, after all, and props don't move themselves. Beyond the concert's structure, what made the program was the place itself, a warm and open space with a glowing wood floor, high ceiling, russet bricks, and tall windows framing the dirty-milk dusk of a rainy June evening. Inside, the semidarkness was sometimes broken by candles, golden side lighting, or, in one corner, a glowing stairway leading nowhere.

Christine Bornarth began the series of solos with Exquisite Fall, whose accoutrements--small, shiny metal sculptures and several candles--were the props most reminiscent of a religious service; her full, gauzy pants at times resembled a shroud. Her back to us, Bornarth retreated to the rear of the space, slowly following on half-toe a very squeaky floorboard, probably discovered during rehearsal, whose music joined the recorded sound of water dripping into water and the slight tinkle of musicians Stone and Leina'ala preparing to play. Bornarth has a strong, delicate presence, and in this piece seemed diffident: only near the end did she meet our eyes, acknowledge our presence, turn this private dance into a public event. Taking her time, she allowed us to contemplate her often subtle movement: a leisurely roll to one side, a shift of weight in the torso that initiated a slow-motion fall, a small undulation from hips to shoulders that exaggerated the motion of breathing and, perhaps for that reason, evoked desire.

At first I thought the set for Julie Hopkins's piece was a swimming rope with red buoys. But seeing a set constructed before your eyes means watching it evolve: when the line was hoisted, the "buoys" unrolled into 20-foot lengths of red velvet, long, skinny curtains that created three separate spaces, each lit by a single bulb--each a little theater, I thought. (One of the pleasures of a ritual is giving it your own meaning.) Hopkins's Sewn States was in many ways a patchwork: her costume was a dress pieced together from women's underwear, the music by ZGA combined ethnic and contemporary instruments and styles, and the dancing seemed to borrow from various forms--Balinese dance, ballet, fluid modern. The constants were Hopkins's heavily defended and inward posture--arms a sort of barrel around the contracted torso, head curved into the chest--and her angular, swiftly taken and abandoned poses, as if she were a robot creating trompe l'oeil movement. As the piece progressed, and Hopkins changed from one "theater" to another--a marvel of nuanced dancing--her motions became more fluid and integrated but somehow retained their harsh, almost tortured edge.

Julia Mayer's Companion Piece I may have been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech when he accepted the Nobel prize, as the program suggested, but I didn't see that. I saw a tall, thin woman as stately and gawky as a crane, giving her whole heart to odd, uncompromised movement: arms before her, she let one rise, one fall; she took an imaginary partner in her arms to waltz, picked a small animal up from the floor. Mayer also used her voice and breath in an intentional but unself-conscious way, singing and laughing to herself, making little noises of pleasure or consideration. Stepping slowly on her big feet or rocking from one foot to the other, Mayer reminded me how the present contains the past and the future alike, as each moment evolves in its own inevitable, accidental way. In the past Mayer's work has sometimes seemed limited by its didactic purposes, but this solo was more straightforward, unmediated by the need to tell a story or prove a point.

As each choreographer stepped into the space to perform her piece, she seemed to offer a gift: Bornarth gave us her soft strength; Hopkins her hard-edged passion, expressed with virtuosity; Mayer her uncompromising intuition. And these were gifts, despite the minimal admission fee: as far as I could tell from the program, this concert received no official arts-funding support.

Yet the wish to please the audience, to offer a complete and unified experience, backfired in the evening's final trio: unfocused and too long, Among Willows was clearly meant to tie the pieces together by repeating movement motifs from the solos or introductory trio, sometimes performed by the original dancer, sometimes not. This section may have been overintellectualized; it seemed both overdetermined and too loosely structured. A collaboration, the final trio may have been a case of too many cooks; whatever the reason, it lacked character.

But overall this was a rewarding performance calculated to draw us into the world of Glade Hall, the dancers, and the musicians, whose live playing made a prodigious contribution to the evening. The music by Stone and Leina'ala--on didgeridoos, handheld drums, bass drums, and ankle bells--was wild and sweet, but their a cappella singing was even better, a wail of half-understood words in perfect harmony. The violin music by Jessica Young and John Robbins was less unified: Young played somewhat raggedly at a relatively high pitch, producing a folk-music sound, while Robbins seemed steeped in the classical tradition, producing modulated and melancholy phrases. The concert couldn't have happened without them--as it couldn't have happened without many imponderables, from the grainy sky to the warm glow of a streetlight in one window to the pensive-sounding floorboard. Rituals are like that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Dana Vallera.

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