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Near-Fatal Complications 

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Judging from its new Quasar, Kinetic Dance Theater works in the most popular of Chicago's traditions, that of accessible, joyous, jazz-inflected dancing. Much of this hour-long piece shows the influence of Bob Fosse on founder-choreographers Joanna and Ryan Greer. There are worse influences to have, and it's a witty idea to build an evening around songs that refer to the night sky: Van Morrison's "Moondance," Hoagy Carmichael's "Star Dust," the title piece by Herbie Hancock and Bennie Maupin.

Why, then, do the Greers (who are married) imagine that they need to trick Quasar up with narratives by spiritualists, physicists, and ten-year-old "philosophers" and subtitle it "An Expressionist Response to the Mysteries of the Cosmos"? Not only does the subtitle make it sound like an ill-advised pageant production number ("A Salute to Cheese!"), the narratives give the evening a wholly unwarranted air of difficulty, a sense that we have to struggle to get the point. That may well be true of understanding the cosmos, but it's not true at all of the dancing.

The evening starts off somewhat obscurely, with the five dancers entering in the dark and freezing for the length of a scratchily recorded interview with physicist Pan Papacosta, who extols the wonder and extent of space. But then the Hancock music and the dancing begin. Reaching, kneeling, and spinning suggestive of worship shade into Fosse-esque show dancing, with lots of jazz hands. A chorus line set front to back collapses elegantly backward to take a look at the stars; a cluster holds tight at center stage while some members leap and dive off its axis, then reassemble to wave their arms in the air, suggesting a sea anemone--also the conclusion, as it happens, of Gerald Arpino's Spring Rain. Yet despite the transparency of its influences, the choreography doesn't seem derivative but rather fresh, almost naive. Only when the piece returns to its concept does it seem stale and labored, as when the ensemble scatters across the stage for a slow, directionless walk--a space walk, perhaps, or "one small step for a (wo)man." I get it, but the thought is less intriguing than the dancing it interrupted.

The second half of the first part, "A Canvas Called Space," begins with Papacosta's one wonderful contribution to the evening: the observation that everything in the universe--time and space alike--has to bend to the unvarying speed of light and that this phenomenon is known as "[light's] privileged behavior." That's a perfect description of the self-sufficiency of dance: privileged behavior before which everything else--spoken ideas, narrative, even philosophy--must give way. This voice-over is followed by an uninteresting solo, "Flirt as a Promise," whose big gestures and struts give Amanda Kimble the opportunity to own the stage like Fosse's muse Ann Reinking. A dancer with more strength than precision, Kimble nevertheless has the intensity and conviction to carry the piece off, delivering content-free bobbing, weaving, and running in circles.

The second part, "Life Is a Never-ending Galaxy," begins with a narrative about the Challenger explosion that engages largely because it's delivered by Heather S. Hulsen, the most magnetic of the dancers. (Angela Frederick's succeeding tale, about a childhood promise involving the stars, is far less interesting, and the meditations of spiritualist Bill "Gorakh" Hayashi are as fuzzy as the recording.) But once we get to the dancing everything's great again: the Greers do a swing dance both crisp and sensual to "Moondance," creatively lit to show their (moon) shadows moving as well. Then (to another Hancock piece, "Rockit") the ensemble returns to Fosse with a vengeance, right down to the white gloves, top hat, and canes--but brought up to date by mechanistic break dancing a la Devo and mid-period Michael Jackson. Ryan Greer even does a moon walk.

"Inner Space," the third section, features sitar-influenced Stevie Wonder music; ensemble dancing brings yoga poses to the fore--predictably, after another message from our spiritualist. Intriguingly, though, the choreography moves us from the omphalos, yoga's center, to the pelvis, center of jazz dance, demonstrating that vernacular dancing can come from the same source as spiritual practices.

The fourth part, "Emotional Relativity," begins weakly with Kimble's shallow pop-culture account of the stars' influence on her life ("I quote Lost in Space on a daily basis"). But it finishes strongly with Hulsen and Frederick's pas de deux to "Star Dust." This piece, including tap and other homages to 40s popular dance worthy of a young Lou Conte, first recalls Fred and Ginger (or Ginger and Ginger) but soon shifts into parallel solos, another comment on alienation.

Quasar ends with "Something Out There You Can't Explain," a labored juxtaposition of the cosmos with religious belief. (Ryan Greer makes the stoned discovery that God is not "the judging father figure" but a well of ecstatic energy.) Perhaps it's the continued dominance of the concept that makes the concluding ensemble piece less exhilarating than the dancing that preceded it, or perhaps it's just the use of the evening's weakest musical selection, the Carpenters' "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft."

Part of the reason dance audiencences are often tiny--opening night for Kinetic attracted a dozen people, including two critics--is the widespread belief that there's some prerequisite to enjoying it, some hidden curriculum to be mastered. Why do dance makers work so hard to contribute to that belief? River North's advertising ("Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. They all dance around. Boy gets girl. And you thought you wouldn't understand it!") is effective precisely because it addresses this issue, establishing that River North is accessible even to those whose experience of dance is doing the bump at parties. Kinetic, by contrast, seems to be trying to obscure its natural appeal. Maybe the Greers think their work is too accessible, and therefore insufficiently serious. Or maybe they're just enchanted with mystification. Quasar's program quotes Einstein: "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious..."

Well, no. The most beautiful experiences we can have in dance are the ones that aren't too confusing or daunting for us to notice that the performers are jumping for joy. That's not, of course, the only thing dance does or should do--but it's what Kinetic does, and the troupe would do well to embrace that fact.

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