Prisoners of Life | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Prisoners of Life 

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BOB EISEN AND ROBIN LAKES

at the Dance Center

of Columbia College

November 6, 7, 13, and 14, 1987

NEW DANCE ENSEMBLE

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

November 5-8, 1987

Sometimes preferring a certain style of choreography is like preferring a certain kind of person--and is as difficult to explain. For example, the New Dance Ensemble, an eight-member group from Minneapolis that appeared at MoMing, struck me as like the person who imitates, with pleasant results, something elegant. But I preferred the rough, often unsettling originality of the Bob Eisen/Robin Lakes concert at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

Certain similarities mark Eisen's and Lakes's works: an interest in mime; unusual exits and entrances, which make it difficult to determine when a work has ended; and the dancers' vocalizing and other noisemaking--they grunt, sing, breathe loudly, yell, make mouth noises, stamp, and squeak their shoes on the floor. And yet the two choreographers appear to have radically different sensibilities.

Lakes is obsessed with limitations: imprisonment, constriction, entrapment of every kind--even entrapment by the body itself. In the 1986 Coming Together, she repeats images of tortured, involuntary movement: her six dancers appear to vomit; they hump the floor; or they watch helplessly as their own limbs move out of control, sometimes trying to slap them back into submission. This behavior, this retching and rutting, where the body imprisons and controls the person, is reinforced by the dance's overall conceit--that the dancers themselves are in prison. Tape divides the floor into six small adjacent squares, each lit from above by its own low-hanging bulb; no dancer ever moves out of his or her "cell." Meanwhile, the taped "music" (a man speaking) consists mostly of the assertion, repeated with variations, that the speaker is in control of his life.

That kind of bitter irony reappears in Savage/Love, a 1986 duet danced here by Lakes and Dan Prindle. This dance is based on the Sam Shepard/Joseph Chaikin play of the same name; the relationship at its center is anything but romantic. We feel the couple have been put under a microscope, but instead of magnifying them, our icy, scientific inspection diminishes and belittles them. At times humorous, the piece proceeds through progressively longer vignettes from the life of this "romantically" attached couple. There are lots of sly references to oral sex: she makes up her mouth, he kisses it--then she spreads her legs and draws genitalia on her underpants with lipstick. In the following vignette, our expectation of the logical next step is subverted when the man does a handstand and she buries her head between his legs.

Savage/Love, the last piece on the program, confirmed my initial impression of Lakes's vision--that it's bitter but facile. The cartoonish, mechanical sex of Savage/Love ultimately offered no more than a surface, however provocative. Lakes's premiere, Extinct, although less finished, offered more possibilities for something human and genuine. Choreographed for and danced by Lauri Macklin, this solo seemed in its way a labor of love.

Macklin, dressed in a dark red, feathery costume, her face elaborately and inhumanly made up, resembles a bird--and that, in combination with the title and the low, fiery lighting, suggests the phoenix, the mythological creature that immolates itself in order to be reborn. Macklin's light, androgynous figure and her remarkably quick, articulate movements make her perfect for this part: her hands are fettered, and Macklin's body seems to combine an angry tension with the light, out-of-control fluttering of a trapped bird. The question raised is implicit in the title: do the bird's death throes result in a true death, is the creature really extinct, or will it rise again? Do we want it to? Lakes seems here more compassionate toward her creation, seems to pity the inhuman creature whose life and death provide such an apt metaphor for human experience.

If Lakes envisions a world of claustrophobic restrictions, a world offering only the most limited possibilities of escape--you can always die, of course, and gain the remote chance of being reborn--Eisen's universe is big, and getting bigger. In his expansive view, even late arrivals at dance concerts are no irritation--in fact, he makes them part of his dance. Or, to be more accurate, everyone was a late arrival at his premiere, Dale, since the piece was going on even as the first arrivals took their seats.

When you enter, the stage has been stripped down for action: the black fabric wings have been pushed all the way back, revealing the side lights, and there's no backdrop. The space seems huge and starkly bright. At the rear of the stage the back wall forms a large black "canvas," which has a painter's scaffolding before it. (The painter--the artist Tom Melvin--actually completes a painting during the piece.) Various mostly motionless figures are scattered about: the painter potters around, a guy with a nearly shaved head gazes moronically into a paint bucket, a man seated downstage tunelessly plays a harmonica, one woman supports another woman slumped in her arms, and a black man attempts to stare down a wall. Eisen himself is center stage, performing his peculiar brand of movement: upper-body releases; isolations of the arms, shoulders, and chest; and percussive running, punctuated by stamps and sneakers squeaking on the floor.

In his twitchings, the gaunt, spidery Eisen resembles a school kid imitating spastic paralysis. At the same time, he also often resembles a harlequin--another figure of fun, but more benign. And when the black man begins to twitch similarly, we see that break dancing, that institutionalized glorification of nerdiness, has the same impulse.

Gradually all of the dancers come to life, each in his or her own way. The two women, for example, separate, and the one that had been supported begins to crawl in slow motion back and forth from one side of the stage to the other. Eventually the second woman returns to grab the crawler's legs and begin "wheelbarrowing" her across the stage. And finally the two return to their original pose, one woman slumped in the other's arms.

Something about this universe suggests Beckett: the stark stage, well lit but all the more mysterious for that; the symbiotic relationships doomed to cyclic repetition; and the clownlike figures that are not quite humorous, not quite tragic. Moreover the piece emphasizes endless, flowing, meaningless transitions--as in Beckett's plays there is continual change but no progress. When the performers leave the stage, as they do often, they exit down the aisles, waving and saying hello to friends in the audience. The two musicians--who sometimes play behind the audience, sometimes perched on the painter's scaffolding--are equally informal, walking on- and offstage casually, loudly packing and unpacking an instrument case. Many of the accepted illusions of dance are abandoned: when dancers run, they make noise, they don't float.

Eisen's quotidian, unadorned world also recalls Beckett, but Eisen uses that world to reflect on dance. When we see three male dancers upstage, apparently not dancing at all but engaging in a casual conversation, their identical postures--all have their hands on their hips--urge us to think of that as dance. What does such a posture suggest? Why is the sight of any gestures made in unison so powerful? By blurring the distinction between everyday movement and dance, Eisen may dim dance's glory, but he also opens up new opportunities: anyone can dance, say while waiting for a train; anyone can watch dance, on any street corner.

The informality, the roughness, of Eisen's piece contrasts sharply with the work of the New Dance Ensemble. A repertory company devoted to performing the dances of various Cunningham-oriented choreographers, the ensemble clearly aimed for (but didn't always achieve) the elegant precision such choreography demands. But quite aside from the question of technique, and more disturbing, was the fact that the troupe seemed unadventurous.

Boundary Water, a 1984 piece by Ralph Lemon, was the most successful of the four dances: it seemed best suited to the dancers' talents, and in its cool, mysterious suggestiveness it was the most interesting. A 1963 work choreographed by Merce Cunningham, Cross Currents, retained its cool, formal beauty but perhaps doesn't shock or interest us as much as it might have audiences 25 years ago. And The Encantadas, a piece by Linda Shapiro (one of NDE's artistic directors) based on Herman Melville's sketches on the Galapagos Islands, was lyrical and pleasant but had little emotional texture: the dancers' almost ceaseless, rapid activity--they made numerous quick entrances and exits and their dancing consisted mostly of leaps--was ultimately rather wearing. And although they did in a way suggest the island birds' "winged and continually shifting canopy" (Melville was quoted in a program note), nothing about the dancers was "demonic" (the word Melville used to describe the birds' din). Perhaps certain areas of experience are unavailable to people who aim too consistently for good taste.

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