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Postmodern Dissertation 

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at Link's Hall

April 12, 13, 19, and 20

Deborah Jowitt, dance writer for the Village Voice, said at a symposium at Northwestern University a few weeks ago, "Artistic revolutions begin by throwing out the baby, the bathwater, the soap, the sponge, the towel, and the tub. As time goes on, the artists reintroduce the elements, one at a time, adapting them to suit their own purposes." Although she was talking about the origins of modern dance, Jowitt's description also suits postmodern dance perfectly. Postmodern dance pares away many of the theatrical elements of dance, and its audience can become deeply angry--a reaction that postmodernists protect themselves against with a dense aesthetic theory. As a result, the viewer may feel that his naive reaction to a dance is not enough--that he must master the jargon of postmodernism. And since postmodern dancers are experts at playing with an audience's expectations, it can be difficult to separate their games and their theories from genuinely affecting work.

In many of the arts, the term "postmodern" has been used in so many ways that it may have little meaning left. The dance world is so small that postmodern dance can be traced to a single class in choreography taught by Douglas Dunn at Merce Cunningham's New York studio in 1960. Dunn's students experimented wildly, staging concerts at New York's Judson Church starting in 1962; this group is often collectively called the Judson Church choreographers. They led an artistic revolution--against modern dance's theatrical conventions and for "honest," "natural" dance. This meant dance without gimmicks, without virtuoso technique, and without meaning beyond the dance itself.

Jowitt told a story about early modern dance that shows how difficult it is to actually achieve honest, natural dancing, however. There was a distinct genre of modern dance during the 1930s called "American studies," a style that employed "honest" flexed feet instead of the "decadent" pointed foot of Europe. Clenched fists were also an iconic element--presumably the clenched fist represented American workingmen's righteous anger. In their search for natural, honest expression, the dancers of the 1930s created a form as ridden with cliches and decadent as the forms they rejected. American dancers have been searching for honest, natural forms ever since Isadora Duncan; postmodern choreographers are merely this year's visionaries.

The Sock Monkeys, a new troupe with a pure postmodern style, use many of the original ideas of the Judson Church choreographers, but few of that school's later ideas for reintroducing theatrical elements. Lucinda Childs originally made hypnotic dances out of simple, repetitive walking patterns; Guild begins with the five Sock Monkeys (Lydia Charaf, Winston Damon, Kay Wendt LaSota, Bryan Saner, and Jeannette Welp) walking a simple pattern onstage and slowly increasing their speed until they're running full-tilt. Guild is also full of Yvonne Rainer's "uninflected" movement: natural movement that is not stylized--the dancers don't lift their weight, defying gravity as ballet dancers might, but slouch like people on the street. As Dunn did, the Sock Monkeys take a dance phrase and repeat it in all possible variations. The Sock Monkeys have also learned well from their Chicago teachers. They often drive a phrase to the point of physical exhaustion, as Bob Eisen does so well. Many of their movements seem to come from Tim Buckley's vocabulary of loosely swinging arms and stamping feet.

The Sock Monkeys quote from postmodern masters so extensively that their dances read like term papers. Throwing themselves enthusiastically into the postmodern style, they give virtuoso performances of nonvirtuoso choreography, with no sweat stain or gym shoe out of place. The adolescent humor that's been so appealing in their other performances comes across here as merely the high jinks of bright students.

On the other hand, the special quality of the Sock Monkeys is that they are never more or less than themselves, and this unpretentiousness gives their dances an individuality seldom seen elsewhere. Winston Damon's Water uses stamping feet and clapping hands to create an engaging, shifting rhythm; it ends with a song chanted to the beat of three American Indian drums. Damon is best known as a musician and composer, and Water has both his rhythmic skill and his shy sweetness. Fatale Musicale relies on Jeanette Welp's giddy sense of humor. She appears wearing a huge hoopskirt, under which dead bodies, milk crates, and ladders disappear; finally Welp herself disappears beneath it. Bryan Saner, in his Hardware, uses his rich speaking voice to tell a story about a boy with X-ray eyes who always knew the color of a girl's underwear. The dancers start out in their underwear and successively don clothes, football shoulder pads, hockey shin protectors, motorcycle helmets, and swimming goggles--until they're completely protected by this hardware. Saner's wordplay and play of ideas are lovely, but the movement is strictly functional.

The strongest work is Guild, created by the entire troupe. The title is apt: before a journeyman was accepted into a guild, he had to produce a masterpiece, a piece that demonstrated he was a master of his craft. The modern equivalent might be a PhD dissertation. Guild is the Sock Monkeys' dissertation, and they quote from almost every postmodern choreographer of note. Toward the end, after singing a beautiful a cappella version from the musical Hair of Shakespeare's soliloquy "What a piece of work is man," they start to make their own contribution. The movement, slow rolls for three people, is suddenly lovely--from themselves rather than from a teacher. During a moment of suspension and timelessness, the dancers quietly leave the stage.

Having passed their exams, the Sock Monkeys are free to get on with the process of artistic revolution. They will no doubt rely on their individuality, for in the end an artist has nothing else. I hope they will continue to rely on their collaborations, and on their sense that making a dance is honest work, as honorable as sawing lumber or building a ladder.

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

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