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CHOREOGRAPHERS SAMPLER

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

February 2, 3, and 4

There's something new under the sun, and it's happening at MoMing. For several years MoMing has hosted "Dance for $1.98" (the original price was a buck), intended for new and emerging choreographers. Now there's "Choreographers Sampler," for experienced choreographers, a joint project with the Chicago Dance Coalition--or more accurately, with its Choreographers and Dancers Constituency. Some 25 choreographers auditioned before a panel, and five were chosen to perform new or revised works last weekend.

The sampler is supposed to offer its choreographers feedback--a discussion with the artists follows each performance. Even more important, it gives them the chance to stage a work they may still be mulling over. Not that there was anything unpolished about this evening--the dancing, lighting, music, and costuming were all remarkably finished. But the sampler is a genuine middle ground between fooling around in one's studio and mounting a full evening of works.

The "Choreographers Sampler" may also invite very personal dances. If a choreographer is told, "Show me one work, and make it one you'd like to play around with a bit," the dance may well revolve around a near and dear subject.

In Venus Rogues, Amy Osgood sets out to do nothing less than go behind the facade of Botticelli's Venus. What does it mean to pose as a goddess? And, by the way, what expectations do all women face, laboring, as Yeats said, to be beautiful? Yet Venus Rogues is no feminist polemic: it turns its subject inside out in a way so delicate and unexpected that the viewer sometimes loses track of the choreographer's point of view.

As the dance opens, three women (Osgood, Marlene Dankworth, and Kay Wendt LaSota) are lying on their sides, their backs to us. Their black unitards are cut wide and deep to reveal the back fully (the stretchy black is also decorated here and there with small holes--punk lace). What we see are female curves both large and small--the round of the hip jutting up, the ripple of small muscles flaring away from the spine. And we see hair--full golden heads of hair worn loose. The small, wavelike motions of this opening section tumble the hair over the face, so that the beginning of Venus Rogues has a seductive hiddenness.

I guess these Venuses are being born, and eventually they find themselves rising up in the pose of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, one hand immodestly over a breast, the other over her sex, but they stand in washtubs instead of seashells. Afterward they dry themselves off and put their tennies back on, while a very skeptical woman questions them in a voice-over: "Did you sleep with Botticelli? Didn't that affect your working relationship? What do you do after work?" When one of the Venuses talks about "our vision"--meaning hers and Botticelli's--the female voice scoffs, with heavy irony: "Our vision?"

It's part of the strength of this piece that the viewer's sympathies remain with the Venuses, not with their angry questioner. They seem like children being attacked for their innocent wish to please--their joint wish, with the artist, to reproduce "spring, bloom, our vision." Later in Venus Rogues Osgood makes clear the limitations, the lies, and even the torture implicit in this vision of women--"bloom" to some means youth, for instance, and no one has that forever. But Osgood also makes us hold onto the grain of truth in this vision of women--as creatures of nature, who have a natural solidarity.

Jane Siarny's solo, which she also danced, is even more personal: Lullaby & Farewell says goodbye to someone who was loved. Siarny's solution to the problem of how to represent someone dying or dead is a simple folding chair, which evinces both presence and absence. Her slight movements make the chair leaning against her seem to breathe; the small, mechanical click of the chair closing up has an invaluable finality. Lullaby & Farewell also has some neat choreographic contrasts: early on, the dancer reaches up, up, only to fall and rock back; later, she lies on the floor only to be pulled to standing, even leaping, by an enigmatic force. And of course there's the dance's central movement idea: that rocking is the motion for comfort and grief alike.

Erika Kotala's Making Ground and Breaking It has a lot of style, but the substance was all in the program note that explained exactly what the dance meant. Kotala and Tari Gallagher-Heap perform a rain dance full of Eastern imagery: arms flowing like a Balinese dancer's; profile views with shoulders facing forward to produce the friezelike effect of Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. Despite some nice movement motifs--one arm falling to the floor, for instance, the hand trailing and twirling as if tracing the curves of a long, serpentine braid--this dance did little for me. The dancing however--Kotala's sinuousness and Gallagher-Heap's luscious power--was wonderful.

Mary Johnston-Coursey's Between Two is another deeply felt work, telling a ripe, almost too literal story. Johnston-Coursey has a gift for using a dancer's weight and momentum to create nearly transitionless phrases--they seem to melt into one another. A dancer hanging over from the waist swings her arms; they swing faster and faster, and the momentum picks her up. A dancer arches backward from the waist until she can go no farther; about to fall, her body nearly horizontal, she twists and tumbles face down to the floor and rolls. But Johnston-Coursey's three dancers--herself, Ann Boyd, and Siarny--are put through too many theatrical paces for my taste. Too often their faces express the emotion we should see in the movement, and the movement itself is sometimes too expected. A dancer expresses indecision, for example, by literally alternating between the two others. So this rich tale of the emotions between women, of unity and fragmentation (so well evoked by the dance's opening image), doesn't have the force it should.

Thank God for Bryan Saner's The Box. It was purely accidental--not anybody's fault--but his piece was the only free-and-easy, really lighthearted romp on the program. Yet it has a serious purpose of sorts. I was afraid at first that The Box was just another diatribe against TV, but Saner confounds that expectation by pointing out that video manipulation is an artist's tool like any other--like a pencil, for example. The mistake is when people make TV the end rather than the means.

I once said Saner is no dancer. I take that back--he's just not your everyday dancer. Large and powerful, with ropy arms and a sharply chiseled head, he moves with an unfinished grace and energy that are unique. His big, lumbering, airborne motions are often confined to a small space--he leaps up and tumbles to the floor in one spot over and over. In this piece he dances with his brother Marlin Saner (who also wrote the music for The Box and played the piano and other instruments in it), and that's a treat. Marlin, somewhat smaller and more delicate than his brother, shares his gift for loose but powerful movement. And they work together, well, like brothers. They take turns rocking each other off their feet, and Marlin performs an astonishing backward leap into his brother's arms. It's a revelation of the trust and intimacy possible between men.

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

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