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Picking Up Pieces 

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NEXT GENERATION PROJECT

at the Chicago Cultural Center Dance Studio, through May 1

Dancing is doing, not talking about doing or thinking about what's been done. Because dancing is so physical--specific marvelous acts intended to communicate a feeling or idea--it tends to operate differently from other, more common means of communication in our society. Whereas theater is discourse, for instance, dance is action. The dances in the Next Generation Project (sponsored by Hedwig Dances) demonstrate rather than talk about the moral values, perceptions, and worldviews of their twentysomething creators.

Looking at these six dances by three choreographers, I was struck by how varied their subjects are--capitalism, bulimia, romance, masculinity--but how similar their methods seem. All three choreographers are true postmoderns; they share an unstated belief that no single type of dance should be valued over another. Their dances are collages--a little bit of evocative lighting here, some ballet moves there, some simple, everyday movement at this place and some theatrical elements over there. The dances tend to be choppy because collages don't encourage sustained ideas. Every dance has a formal structure that often relates to its theme, but the dances are not created to be beautiful--to fulfill a formal aesthetic design--so much as to record the choreographers' thoughts and feelings.

The choreographers' approach reflects the world they find. In the last 30 years the dance tradition has been put into a blender and pulverized; modern dancers like Twyla Tharp choreograph for ballet and jazz companies, while the Joffrey Ballet dances to music by Prince. There are no privileged discourses anymore; there's hardly a single intact theory of dance left. And there's certainly no agreement on what is beautiful.

These choreographers' dilemma is the dilemma of their generation. The ethics of the West--its sense of what is admirable and what is despicable--have been destroyed by the struggles between the counterculture and the mainstream. Traditional sexual roles and work roles are being challenged; even something as simple as what we eat has been the focus of intense struggle, as many question whether the protein-rich American diet is necessary, moral, or healthy. It's from the bits and pieces of American culture and dance ideas that these choreographers have made their works. In such a shattered environment, the choreographers seek to create dances that explain their own truths. Yet these are not introspective dances exploring an inner landscape but personal dances about issues that affect everyone.

The person with the most urgent story to tell is Rebecca Rossen. Last year she explored the distorted sense of femininity that leads to bulimia in her dance Eating Your Heart Out. When that exuberant and obsessive work ended, the floor was covered with bits of smashed diet food. Rossen started a series of dances about femininity: last year's Wallflower showed a girl in a prom dress trying to dance in foot-high platform shoes; the dictates of fashion imprisoned her as surely as foot binding imprisoned Chinese women. Her dance this year, Consumer Consume Her, is presented in two parts (both made in collaboration with Vicki Walden). The first is a performance piece that centers on a mother with a beehive hairdo holding a birthday cake with lit candles; her daughters also carry birthday cakes. The climax comes when the mother, wearing high-heeled pumps, steps into the birthday cake, crushing it; each daughter steps into one of the cake-encrusted shoes and totters offstage. Rossen's ritual destruction of food conveys the troubled relationships many women have with their mothers and with food, but as a man I felt uninvolved and a little dismayed.

The second section of Consumer Consume Her is a dance piece performed by Rossen and Walden. It's filled with iconic gestures--dialing a telephone, a hip-swaying Hawaiian dance--and movements that suggest entrapment: as Rossen reaches out with one hand, the other grabs it back; Walden holds her arms over her head, the wrists touching, as if manacled and chained to a dungeon wall. The self-abuse that fuels obsession appears in a short, rough sequence in which Rossen and Walden roll across the floor several times, careless of their own bodies. Their portrayal of obsession is unrelieved and rather oppressive.

Sheldon B. Smith also repeats tasks in his Armaflex, but he seems to be a dancer simply working, trying to perfect his dancing through repetition. He walks onstage in black Lycra shorts, leotard, and ballet slippers, takes a position in a corner of the stage, and begins a slow sequence of movements--some are pure ballet technique, some are sharp angles made with his arms, some are jazz-dance moves. He looks concentrated but relaxed, and the shapes are often very clean. Smith then repeats the sequence with greater speed, and gathering a little momentum starts to move across the floor; the momentum proves to be too much, and he tumbles down. Again and again he gets up, goes back to his first position, and starts the sequence over, until the last sequence is fast, loose, and lovely. The dance's concept--watching a dancer be a dancer--is too clever, but Smith's dancing has a stripped quality that feels more emotional than his previous dancing has.

Smith's duet Dance for Two uses the same structure--he and Amy Alt repeatedly try to accomplish something--but to much different ends and much better effect. The romantic relationship they try to put together looks more like a wrestling match: a buzzer sounds and the two come out of their corners, clasp hands, and start to dance, trying to fit themselves into any space not already occupied by the other person. Sappy love songs are played during each round. Whenever the buzzer sounds again they return to their corners--Smith to a wooden chair next to a thrift-store lamp and Alt to a chic canvas chair next to an end table with an elegantly fluted wineglass. After they rest, they come out again enthusiastically for another try at a relationship. Their intertwined movement gets progressively more fluid until they start to slide to the floor; then they always lose control of their momentum and Smith is launched into the air to land with a thump. Their increasingly complex lifts lead to a lovely climax in which Alt, demonstrating unusual strength for a woman, lifts Smith high off his feet. This duet harnesses Smith's love of moving in tight spaces and makes it serve a touching and funny story.

Alt's theatrical skill is evident in the tableau she sets for her Saint Vitus' Dance for the Profit Motive. Two women (Alt and Jo Ann Concialdi) dressed like Pierrots in whiteface with blackened eyes and wearing white jumpsuits with clownish floppy collars appear underneath a wildly swinging light. They dance in short sequences that are sometimes technically difficult but are never given any emotional inflection. The movement sequences are fitted into a larger sequence that seems to wind into the center of a labyrinth and then unwind. Individual movements start to emerge: a dancer bites her wrist as her body convulses (the Saint Vitus's movement?); she counts to four with her fingers (the profit-motive movement?); she kicks off the back wall repeatedly; she throws herself at the back wall; one woman drags the other across the floor or carries her like a baby. Chris Salter's relentless electronic music and bold lighting effects push the dance into a gathering mood of oppression and violence. As a political dance it's surprisingly moody and free of propaganda; Alt focuses instead on the way capitalism keeps everyone feeling as if their heads are just above water.

Though much of Alt's premiere, Useful Alchemical Study, is interesting, it never develops enough of a center to become more than a study. Five casually dressed women (Concialdi, Lauri Kammin, Julia Mayer McCarthy, Suzanne Merkel, and Walden) dance on a set that includes a huge graffiti-covered rising moon, numbers appliqued on the floor, and a head-high stack of white plastic buckets. One woman calls out a number, and they launch into intricate sequences of simple movements. At first they dance in unison, but then each dancer's sequence starts to diverge from the others'. Before the ensemble dancing evolves into complete chaos, they break off and start another sequence. Alt seems to be using a minimalist strategy, like Phillip Glass's, of repeating a sequence many times, subtly changing it each time. Each such section is interesting, but nothing comes of it. Glass's music does somehow gather meaning and feeling, but Alt's dance seems to scatter meaning. If her experiment yields equivocal results, however, Alt's lovely theatrical devices put the best face on them.

All the dances in the concert are experimental, using a wide variety of techniques to communicate a theme; but none have the to-the-ramparts, smash-the-system fervor of some of the current generation's experimental dance. The next generation seems more interested in rebuilding than revolution.

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