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PS '91

at Puszh Studios

September 13

Most people have big dreams they fantasize about turning into reality. Occasionally, the rare individual has enough talent and force of personality to make such dreams come true. At Puszh Studios, director David Puszczewicz and managing director Terry James have turned ambition into fact. Not content to offer the usual dance classes (Puszczewicz is the artistic director of the David Puszh Dance Company) and musical-theater classes (James directs S.R.O. Vocals), they have turned their combination nightclub/performance space into one of the liveliest spots in the city, with music, theater, and dance performances in a constantly changing monthly calendar of events, "PS '91."

Last year's "Dark Nights" series presented over 130 artists, both emerging and established talent; it was so popular that this year music and dance series have been added. The first dance event offered a mixed bill of local dance companies and choreographers, featuring works from Emergence Dance Theatre, Winifred Haun, Joel Hall, and independent choreographers Christopher Rutt, Brian Frette, and Denise Gula. Despite the unseasonable heat wave, the place was packed.

The most experimental work was by Emergence; paradoxically, it was also the most limited. Both Metronomic Disparity, choreographed and danced by Sandra Schramel, and Cocoon II, choreographed and danced by John L. Schmitz, make imaginative use of slides and film (conceived by Norman Magden) projected onto the soloists' bodies and the wall behind them. Of the two pieces, Schmitz's is the more static, because his choreographic vision is obscured by the overwhelming visual force of the constant projections. Wearing a white mask, dressed in white and carrying two large winglike white fans, Schmitz moves in the same predictable variations, flapping the butterfly wings to catch various projected images and hues. Some of these projections, however, produce stunningly beautiful effects, almost surreal glimpses into another world. A tiny projection of the white-clad dancer appears behind and underneath him on the wall, for instance, then becomes enlarged when it's occasionally captured on the dancer's moving wings, or his leg, or his torso.

In Schramel's solo, she wears a Janus-headed costume, black on the back and white on the front. She also holds up large, geometric fans that she moves about to capture projected images of herself and other dancers. Several simultaneous projections of large masked heads like hers not only add to the surreal effect but enhance the doll-like look of her own expressionless masks. When the image of a dancer appears on one of the fans like someone encapsulated in a crystal ball, it's as if Schramel has suddenly become a seer.

The almost hypnotic evenness of Metronomic Disparity changes abruptly with the sound of pounding drums. The performer crouches behind the fans, almost cowering. When she rises, the projection of a nude hermaphroditic body appears on her robed figure. The projections then switch back and forth from a man's to a woman's body until the figures become entangled in a rapid, complex succession of almost inseparable images. This vision is both soothing and unnerving; like the Janus masks, it presents not only alternate realities but the body's mundane and sublime simplicity and majesty. The alien and ecstatic transformations the human body undergoes can't change its familiarity.

Joel Hall's Compassion (danced by Angel Abcede and Merrick Mitchell) also deals with emotions on a grand scale: how feelings of forgiveness and empathy bring us all closer together. Unfortunately, these two dancers weren't technically up to the expansive poses called for by the lyrical choreography; they tended to wobble on one foot for any extensions or arabesques. They did manage to capture the mood of the piece in their expressions, however: deep looks of utter compassion and forgiveness.

Winifred Haun (a member of the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre who was recently nominated for a Ruth Page award for her dancing) showed three works. In The Wall, she tackles the big theme of war. A woman gives birth to a son and raises him to be a man--only to lose him to the military, literally represented here by a line of dancers in black unitards and army camouflage hats. Though the piece is definitely ambitious, the choreography is too heavy-handed and obvious and the dancers in their shiny unitards are too sleek and glamorous to convey the real horrors of combat. Haun's Next begins with a lineup of seven dancers in black unitards; bright purple or blue sashes around their waists add an imaginative touch (costuming by Dolores Haun). Unfortunately the studio space was just too small for them to go through their choreographic paces, cramping the dance's lyrically angular style.

In Long Lunch, however, Haun is back on the familiar turf of the duet, and the small scale works beautifully. Mary Heller and Gary Joplin compete in comic one-upmanship, their acrobatic gymnastics in contrast to the classical music. They compete at everything: collapsing, striking poses. She takes a ballet stance and he mimics her, pointing out the absurdities in the classically assured line. We become so absorbed in their antics that the piece ends all too abruptly--as in any good athletic meet, we want to see more of the competitors in action.

Heller and Joplin are good enough actors not to overdo it even when they're hamming it up. Not so with the dancers in Schtick Schtomp, choreographed by Christopher Rutt and Brian Frette and danced by them and Lynn Nolan. Here all three are not quite "ready" or costumed for their dance, doing mundane preparatory things onstage like brushing their teeth (the one bit that's actually quite funny). They rush about once the music starts, adding pieces to their costumes as they flash across the stage, tripping, falling, and tumbling in their haste to be ready.

When I Fall, choreographed by Denise Gula and danced by Nolan and Rutt, begins as two solos disguised as a duet--a couple, destined for each other, are shown separately in the yearning phase of searching for that perfect someone. The very slight tension that the piece musters comes from the longing glances the dancers give each other in this early phase; we wonder when they'll get together in a duet. After a slight pause, when both dancers wait for a new song to begin, the two suddenly and unceremoniously start dancing with each other, and the absence of any fanfare makes the piece seem even more lackluster. The upbeat humor of the third and final song carries the piece further into inanity: more in the vein of Schtick Schtomp's opening antics, this section doesn't have even the yearning jazziness of the dance's first two songs.

By contrast, Frette and Rutt's The Two of Pentacles is innovative enough to be one of the highlights of the evening. One man carries the other upside down in the dance's opening scene; together they're like a living tarot card. Their very expressive faces grimace and hiss dramatically as they go through a series of acrobatic lifts and serpentine twists, passionate and suggestive; when they back away from the audience in the final scene, they still carry a threatening aura. The intensity of the mood throughout the piece comes from the dancers' carrying the violence and commitment in their faces through to the rest of their bodies, showing the same concentration a fortune teller brings to her scrutiny of the tarot cards.

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