Khecari's extreme dance annoys—in a good way | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Khecari's extreme dance annoys—in a good way 

Pales is antitheater, antisentiment

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Combined intimacy and conflict are expressed in the embraces in Pales

Combined intimacy and conflict are expressed in the embraces in Pales

Ryan Bourque

Lots of us, including me, try to tidy up the great house of Art. We walk into one of its rooms and start sweeping, dusting, and straightening, looking for allusions and patterns and, ultimately, meaning. When that impulse is stymied, arts consumers often exact a quick revenge. "My three-year-old could have painted that." Or "I don't get it"—the preferred response to dance.

It's basically an impulse to be entertained in recognizable ways. And it's an impulse that choreographer Jonathan Meyer chops off at the root in his new 40-minute, supremely annoying quartet Pales. Paired with an earlier Khecari piece called The Clinking, Clanking Lowesleaf—a more accessible dance cocreated and performed by Khecari choreographers Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick—Pales both begs for and obstructs interpretation. It's antitheater, antisentiment. Yet over time it builds its own intriguing world, mostly through movement; the obfuscating texts, costumes, and metatheatrical framework provide mere hints.

Pales drops viewers into an ongoing story introduced at "intermission" by Meyer's "lecture." After Lowesleaf, Khecari administrator/performer Suzy Grant comes onstage and urges the audience to take a "six- to eight-minute break" even as she breathlessly announces the imminent arrival of a distinguished guest. "Go—no, stay!" is her message. Then, a bit at a time, Meyer tells a nonsensical "historical" tale about a Croatian shepherd digging garlic, vampires, the invention of cigars, the world's longest intermission, how the Inquisition abolished intermissions, and a carpet square. Plus a whole lot more.

Approximately two feet of white carpet does lie onstage. And after Meyer and Grant retire to seats on the catwalk overlooking the space, the lights come up on three performers with one foot apiece on the carpet square; the fourth is off to the other side of the stage. A recorded score of concert instruments and manipulated sounds by Khecari collaborator Christopher Preissing provides a provocative but never overwhelming substratum.

Slowly, concepts from the Inquisition—claiming territory, intimate combat, watchling and passing judgment—begin to pervade Pales (the noun pales here meaning "stakes" or heraldic stripes). The dancers' gauzy hoods, which they pull out of pockets in their costumes and stuff back in, suggest monks. But their fussing with fluttery little rectangles of fabric on their arms and legs is just distracting. Meyer and Grant, seated on high, seem Grand Inquisitors who initiate and interrupt the action, but their periodic pronouncements about how "moving" they find the piece are perhaps the single most annoying element of Pales.

So why did I find myself warming to the performers, to their frequent grappling? Paired generally by sex—Antonick with Jessie Young, Michel Rodriguez with Edson Cabrera—they repeatedly leap into each other's arms, where they're clasped around the thighs and even flipped. They become entangled in embraces/wrestling matches, entwining arms or wrapping a hand around the other's neck or shoulder. Whether companionably or aggressively is unclear. Combined intimacy and conflict becomes the lingua franca of Pales.

Solos are even more stirring. No one ever leaves the stage, so Pales fractures either into two pairs or into three against one. Standing on one leg, Young contorts herself into an unworkable knot, one leg propped on the other, an arm behind her back—and becomes the object of unwelcome scrutiny. All the dancers are strong, but the most consistently moving is Cabrera. Lying faceup, he folds his shins and arms beneath his torso, belly forced up, head and neck falling back as if ready for the garrote. Later, when he stands and folds over his torso, the way he slowly scrapes his head with his hands suggests grief. In Meyer's world of aggressors and victims, the regular swapping of identities creates sympathy for all.

I felt both relief and loss when Pales, a work in progress, ended. If its obstacles to enjoyment are intentional, it's a truly radical piece. If not, Meyer might want to rethink his choices.

The Clinking, Clanking Lowesleaf, also the title of an 1854 German fairy tale, is partly about transformation—and it's undergone a few transformations itself in different venues. This 40-minute culminating version, set once again to Joe St. Charles's live percussion, takes advantage of the Storefront's tech facilities. Meyer "floats" through the air, for example, on a lead that makes him look like a balloon—or a curled fetus attached to Antonick by an umbilical cord.

Such creepy associations run throughout the eerie Lowesleaf, divided by blackouts (and subtitles) into a dozen vignettes. Fear haunts Meyer's and Antonick's interactions, which often revolve around who's in control. For years they've been exploring duet forms, from the tango to capoeira—and it shows in the way they've distilled those conventions here and married them to indistinct fairy tales. By the time Meyer and Antonick are stumbling along together like marathon dancers in the last vignette, "Carcass Drag," they've come to seem paired forever in an enchanted land of hair-raising embraces.

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