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Meditations on Mortality 

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Xsight! Performance Group

at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University, December 2 and 3

I didn't know Tim O'Slynne to talk to, but I miss him as a performer. I miss his funny nasal voice with its little Texas twang. I miss his schizophrenic changes in mood. I miss his brutal sense of humor, which could batter and bloody its objects. He reminded me of a rooster, partly because his shock of white hair stood up like a comb. But he also had a rooster's aggressive, slightly dazzled look, that animal's seriocomic stare, a blend of challenge and bewilderment.

Obviously there are people who miss Tim more. Like the members of the company he helped form in 1988, Xsight! Performance Group, and particularly his partner of 12 years, Brian Jeffery, now Xsight!'s artistic director. It was impossible to see this concert of five works outside the context of Tim's death, on October 10. AIDS deaths have inspired many people in dance, from Joffrey choreographer Edward Stierle (who died in 1991 at the age of 23) to modern choreographers like Ralph Lemon and Bill T. Jones. And though artists in many other fields have been affected by and have confronted AIDS, I think of dance as suited to the subject of death generally.

Dancers are mystics deeply rooted in the physical world: dance is shot through with the urgent importance of bone and muscle, of youth and vigor. And maybe because dancers depend so absolutely on the body, they're hyperaware of its transience--that ultimately it's a tool, a means to spiritual and emotional ends. Dancers crystallize the sense ordinary people have every day, if they stop to feel it, of their own mortality.

Yet it doesn't have to be a solemn business. Take the opening piece here, Gotta Go, which Jeffery made and performs with Milwaukee dance professor Ed Burgess. Its central prop is a flight of steps, its opening image the two men arrested in their scramble up, gasping "gotta go." Gotta go where? is the obvious question, and the only answer is gotta go die. So what's the hurry? Yet these two keep hurling themselves and various pieces of luggage around the stage, racing up the steps, then stopping, apparently overcome by second thoughts, and stepping gingerly back down. In an ironic touch Jeffery and Burgess transform themselves into two condescending intellectuals in a downstage spotlight pontificating on the foolishness of "those two." The final image is shocking, hilarious, an end sudden and absolute.

If Gotta Go comically advocates slowing down, other pieces show the results of stopping to think. In Jeffery's meditative Sleep. An Angel Waits a woman in a flowing white gown (Jennifer Sohn Quinn, whose elegant, frail arms are regal and vulnerable) revives various fallen dancers dressed in the colors of the grave, gray and black. If falling is a metaphor for death in this swirling, liquid dance, then no one ever really dies; they fall and are raised continuously. The duet Wagon Red--choreographed by one of Xsight!'s new associate directors, Marianne Kim--is more enigmatic, perhaps not inspired by death at all. Recalling the imagistic poetry of William Carlos Williams, Kim's piece uses carefully selected objects (a child's red wagon, the skeleton of an umbrella, two large dried leaves), simple movement, and a glacial pace to evoke the frailty of human life. First she, then Peter Carpenter--Xsight!'s other new associate director--reclines in the wagon and is pulled along in what I couldn't help seeing as a funeral procession.

The only piece on which the three current members of Xsight! collaborated, Wait'll It Happens to You, is distinctly unlike these two elegant, careful works and distinctly like O'Slynne's 1987 Isosceles Triangle, which was revived for this concert. O'Slynne's explicit meditation on the subjects of reincarnation and past lives is a bit of a mess, a jumble of disparate genres: melodrama, camp humor, classical allusion, texts, mime, gestural movement. But that was Tim. And that daring, rich mix could produce some emotionally effective, disturbing dance, particularly in evening-length works like The Pope's Toe and What Are We Going to Do With Mary?

I saw the same potential in the quartet Wait'll It Happens to You, a piece that has some of the energy and anger of the old Xsight! Paper props are the emblem of mortality here, evoking winding sheets, hospital gowns, bandages, cocoons. When Carpenter is wrapped in a big sheet of paper, Kim, Jeffery, and Holly Quinn rip pieces of it with their teeth and spit them out in a gesture that simultaneously suggests cannibalism and revulsion. In a highly dramatic solo section Kim wraps paper around her arms in long, thin cones like the toys called Chinese yo-yos and manipulates these insectlike limbs, these calipers, expertly, in robotic motions, while her face remains impassive, serene. But when Quinn comes on with the same papery arms, hers can't support their own weight and bend in the middle, useless. She becomes angry and starts whipping the floor with them until they come apart in even more useless shreds, a bitter image of the body's disintegration and the self-destructive anger that can damage it further.

Yet Wait'll It Happens to You is also a bit of a mess, episodic and seemingly unfinished: it ends abruptly. Perhaps it's a sketch for the sort of long piece Xsight! was once so good at sustaining. It's too early to say whether a new company can rise from the old, but this concert made it seem that the elements are there: Jeffery's talent for impassioned movement, Kim's gift for striking images, Carpenter's charismatic presence and ironic, teasing texts (not used here but in his own concert a few weeks ago). No one can replace Tim, and no one wants this Xsight! to be a carbon copy of the old one. But some controlling intelligence is needed, some chemistry among the members, for this group to produce the unified, wide-ranging work of a true collaborative organization.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Ross.

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