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DANCING IN THIS PLACE

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

December 15 and 16

The last "official" performances at MoMing, in what was originally scheduled to be the 1990/91 season, took place on the first two weekends in December, and many said their good-byes then. But the choreographic spirit that made MoMing so vital a part of the arts community hadn't been quenched yet. Last weekend offered composition-workshop performances (free of charge) that testified quite eloquently to the experimental energy that has been such a driving force at MoMing. Sentimentality is normally anathema to artists, but on the evening of December 16, the last performance before MoMing closes its doors on December 31, we all reveled in it, savoring its every nuance.

Veteran Chicago choreographers Jan Bartoszek and Amy Osgood, who taught the 12-week composition workshop that resulted in "Dancing in This Place," gave a brief but moving introduction, "for the last time," and dedicated the evening's program to Jackie Radis, MoMing's former artistic director and one of its founders. "Stay and talk to the choreographers afterward," they said, "or stay and say good-bye to the space--or just stay." And everyone knew exactly what they were trying to express--that MoMing's existence might be briefly prolonged if the audience stayed.

It seemed to me that the same urgent, wistful poignancy propelled the work of all eight choreographers, who were, for the most part, making small, meaningful statements. But taken as a whole, they added up to an impressive bill of fare. Each choreographer said what he or she had to say, then promptly ended the piece. Each work gained power by its individuality. There was no adolescent seeking to solve the problems of the universe in a five-minute dance, only the quiet strength of dealing with the familiar--and in this case, it often proved to be shadowed by a sense of loss. Even the titles expressed grief: Average Security Loss, The Scream, Still Run, Fate.

There are momentary consolations throughout the dances, finally even small triumphs--the dancers do rise from most of the frequent falls they take. But all have a sense of quiet desperation, even the most ambitious and successful piece on the program, Daedalus's Entity . . . Entropy . . . Entrails . . . Flesh and Dust . . . Light and Blood . . . the Wail . . . the Brain Tissue . . . the Groom Stripped Bare by His Handmaidens, Even. Working in collaboration with his "Crewe" of six dancers (Maria Dicintios, Tim Noworyta, Atalee Judy, Terry Brennan, Bridgett Cooper, and Philip Gibbs), Daedalus has come up with what is probably the most propitious use of the MoMing space I've seen in its 16- year history, using all of its dramatic possibilities. It's certainly the only time I can remember spontaneous applause for a set there (this one is assembled during the dance), the kind you get at the opera or at Broadway plays.

Entity opens with four men in black sweatpants and bright red sashes briskly and efficiently putting together a huge block-pipe construction on wheels, building one level quickly onto another till it reaches the height of the balcony; they climb onto that to retrieve more building materials and construct another tier. Meanwhile, on the other side of the dance floor are three loping figures, their heads completely covered by bright red hoods. They move closer and closer to the audience, and finally the three women discard their hoods and black tops to reveal their "real" dancerly nature (they wear patterned unitards underneath). They lunge for the structure and position themselves on it while the men wheel it around. After all have descended from their spate of dancing on the structure, they mercilessly (and comically) insist with pointing fingers that Daedalus do a solo at its top. He grabs onto MoMing's ceiling lights to propel the device around the space in a wildly compelling joyride, the structure seeming almost an extension of his body. Then a screen is placed in front of him, and his illumined body behind it creates a momentary shadow theater until projections on the screen obscure him.

The photographic scenes on the screen, among them slides from the Vietnam war, are as multilayered as Entity itself, yet the piece doesn't overwhelm you with a blitzkrieg of unconnected imagery--it merely offers an impressive array of information, like data from an informed lecturer. A true multisensory experience, it engages the viewer totally, unlike so many multimedia events, which work only on limited levels.

Entity does not end with the poignant antiwar slides. Daedalus begins using the raised stage behind the main space--we suddenly become aware of a long black stairway from the balcony to the stage, behind a scrim that lends the boxed-in raised stage the look of a surrealist painting. A man slowly descends the stairway, and two others quickly follow; one can't avoid thinking of Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. At first their comically zombielike movements are wildly desperate, frenetic flailing. Soon everyone on the dance floor is zombielike, too, until all fall to the floor but one man, who begins smiling eerily to himself. When his hand suddenly shoots up into the air and he looks up at it, it's hard to say whether the gesture is one of triumph or madness. There is certainly a desperate quality to the performers' facial expressions when they all rise again and pair off, and a pervading gloom when they all pose atop the structure, behind the screen, ghostlike. An almost nude Daedalus dashes up the stairs, and a dancer in pursuit whisks off his only article of clothing--a red bit of cloth--which is left onstage in lieu of the dancer. It has the same impact as Duchamp's ironic shattered-glass renderings of desolation.

The evening's other choreographers offer messages of grief on a smaller scale. Shannon Raglin, in Average Security Loss, wearing a blue blazer over a black leotard, seems almost neurotically preoccupied with a sliding movement of her hand over her torso and diagonally to her hip. Her dance in its first section is full of small, sharp, angular movements, and in the second (strangely presented later in the program) the repetitiveness of her secretarial activities--typing, dictating, reading--drives her into an off-kilter state, her arms stuck out unevenly on either side. She actually appears to have more to say than she shows us--rare in an emerging choreographer--and I'd love to see this "classroom exercise" developed into a full-scale piece, with the full timbre of expression she can bring to it.

Bridgett Cooper, toward the end of her The Scream, falls to the floor repeatedly, collapsing, giving up. Sabine Parzer's Whiff has four dancers in a tight circle, constantly falling, sometimes onto each other. The intense, repetitive plucking of strings in the music (by Rodney Shelden Fehsenfeld) offers counterpoint. Finally, all the women (Julie Hopkins, Abbie Kantor, and Leigh Richey) are on the floor and only the man (Mark Schulze) is left standing; then a quick breath from one of the women blows him down. His apparent sturdiness is as flimsy as a house of cards. It's sad and funny all at once, and a perfect end to the piece, which is made poignant in the context of MoMing's "sudden" demise.

Draza's solo, Awake She Rose, begins with her on the floor, dragging herself as if in a nightmare; but it lightens up when she rises and her movements open into a broader sweep. The balletic chaine and pique turns she does don't give her dance an overly classical feel, just a more focused poignancy. Like many of the other dances on this program, it produces a feeling of recognition of some inner, subconscious level to which the choreographer appeals.

Kitty Donahue's Still Run (performed by Sara Bernal, Donahue, Carrie Ganz, Susan Gooding, Laurie Kammin-Bunes, Katie Pearl, and Pat Roberts) is full of diagonal movement patterns, but what we notice is a woman off to one side doing small, twitchy things, as if she were a puppet under someone else's control. More than the three women stepping and circling on the other side, or the two women alternately leaping from one side to the other and then offstage, slicing the dance floor in half, we notice her. In a particularly memorable moment, one of her twitches suddenly becomes enlarged; as if in rebellion against her puppet nature, she falls to the floor--only to return to her twitching desperation. The gamelan music adds to the piece's eerie effectiveness.

Kat Letscher's Fate ends with three women (Martha Crawford, J.P. Maton, Letscher) stretched on the floor, one foot stretched out and up higher than the other, as if pausing in midmovement. Another dancer (Bridgett Cooper) moves among them, as if trying to reconcile them. During most of this dance, the performers either mirror or echo each other's movements. The narration that suddenly begins during one section is read in the most melancholy voice, and while I couldn't quite decipher what was being said, I didn't really need to--its tone was enough to get the message across.

Rebecca Rossen's Meshugass takes place between or on two small rugs spread on the dance floor. Rossen wipes and rubs at her face in utter frustration, as if trying to obliterate something from her memory, or even obscure herself. When she does some folk steps to traditional music, her blank-eyed expression negates the seemingly joyous dance. The steps seem to drive her to dance; she isn't the one in control. Finally she stands and smooths her hair, giving the audience an austere, desperate stare.

Normally you'd expect the dance to end here--but instead Meshugass takes a more complex twist. A partner (Andrew Huckman) joins Rossen. The humor that results is of an uncomfortable, guilty kind--laughing at others' malaise, at the awkward situations they fall into and their stupid, weird little ways of dealing with them. Rossen places Huckman on one of the rugs, lying on his side and facing us, and from this position he speaks about his search for the perfect mate, someone he can take to concerts with his parents, "who'll know a concerto's in three movements, a symphony in four, and not to applaud between any of them." The absurdity of his position and the seriousness with which he delivers his absurd text make it all funny as hell.

It's a fine note on which to end the evening, in a way echoing what was on everyone's mind, the search for a perfect new dance venue. These talented young choreographers need a place to showcase their work--as Bartoszek and Osgood said during their introduction. It was bittersweet, certainly, to see MoMing ring out its "season" with the same high-caliber energy it had 16 years ago. The long applause at the end of the program acknowledged not just these young choreographers but all who had preceded them at MoMing.

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