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Prisoners of Meaning 

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Baubo Performance Project, Christine Munch, Rebecca Rossen, and August Tye

at the Athenaeum Theatre, Second Stage, November 3 and 4

When choreographers hope to "say something" they often abandon abstract dance, which is assumed to be about nothing, for dance theater, with its texts, mime, and elaborate costumes, props, and sets. Yet it's a difficult form to pull off. Since a dance-theater piece is often the length of a one-act play, it has to sustain interest for a longer period of time than the usual "pure" dance. And the more familiar elements of theater--the spoken word, mime--tend to dominate, which can make the dancing seem superfluous. It's as if we try to bring into focus the ghostly "real play" behind dance theater rather than see what's actually before our eyes and allow it to have the same immediate impact that dance does.

The program that inaugurated the Dance Chicago '95/Second Stage performances (in the Athenaeum's newly remodeled smaller space) was split between dance theater and pure dance. Baubo Performance Project, a collaborative group of six women, presented a dance-theater piece about leaving home and, perhaps, finding a new home. WanderLust: A Migration in Three Parts begins with a line of women walking slowly onstage dressed in men's black pants, white shirts stuffed to bursting with newspapers, and newspaper headdresses like very high, stiff collars, obscuring their faces. After processing to the rear of the stage, they begin frantically ripping the newspapers away from their heads and out of their shirts; finally three of the six have stripped off their shirts too, and the stage is strewn with torn paper.

The costumes suggest women pretending to be men, stuffed shirts whose true identities are literally buried. Tearing away the newspaper, revealing their soft breasts and small waists, Baubo essentially says: We're not aberrant men, the way the culture so often defines women (think of Freud). Our nature is fundamentally different, and beautiful. At the same time, nudity onstage is a charged thing, often sensational. Removing their shirts suggests kids taking a dare, especially since a later section of text asks "have you ever?" questions in voice-over: "Have you ever eaten at Due's pizza?" "Have you ever married a monster?" I imagined another: "Have you ever been nude onstage?" WanderLust suggests a taste for adventure, but the piece also reflects a lot of anxiety about venturing away from home and from convention. After they've been comfortably shirtless for a while, the women suddenly rush around picking up newspapers as if mom were on her way over for an unexpected visit; then they stop dead, clutching the newspapers to their chests, to face us in a self-protective, crouched phalanx.

WanderLust is an interesting piece, well worth seeing, that falls into the usual dance-theater pitfalls. It's too long, with its often ritually slow movement; and it's too obscure. (Why does Marianne Kim open six bottles of seltzer, labeled "for the traveler," and drink them all herself?) The movement--except for a duet between Kim and Martha Donovan near the end that suggests a mother-daughter reconciliation--isn't compelling. And the ghostly "real play" behind the piece, which isn't hard to see, is too limited in its focus to have an impact, at least on me: I'm more of an age to have a child leave home than to leave home myself. During one text that sounds like a mother's accusatory diatribe against her child during a visit, I identified with the mother, whom I saw as justly annoyed. I don't think I was supposed to feel that way. But perhaps because dance theater is both more specific than pure dance and less specific than theater, I was trapped between seeing clearly what I was supposed to feel and being unable to feel it.

Christine Munch's Solitude Confined: The Journey of Dear John, the other dance-theater work on this program (also shown the previous weekend at the Hedwig Dance Lab), like Baubo's piece offers a female perspective. Munch, who's a costume designer as well as a choreographer, is highly attuned to the nuances of dress; the way the four performers change their hats in itself suggests a journey, from the Turkish-looking fezzes of recent immigrants to the large, fanciful milliner's creations worn by "ladies" to the smaller, more modest chapeaus of more modern, more middle-class women. One scene that mimics the stiff, overly polite female gathering may be genuinely funny and horrifying only to women: the four performers utter a symphony of pretended affection and warmth, of elaborate caretaking that means nothing, of denying their own needs and second-guessing everyone else's.

Solitude Confined too is well worth seeing, though like WanderLust it's often obscure--not so much because its meanings are private, though they may be, but because the cultural sources are unknown to me. Munch's use of vastly different texts (Ingmar Bergman's film Dreams, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, Roget's Thesaurus) reminded me of Goat Island's approach, but her movement is completely different from theirs, gentle and delicate rather than athletic and punishing. Often her performers dress or groom one another in dance and mime that's of a piece and reflects the work's female focus.

I was oppressed, however, by the sense that Solitude Confined was being performed in a space it wasn't designed for (the stage area is much smaller than at the Chicago Cultural Center, where it was first done). Not only were we lacking the necessary distance to see the piece as it was meant to be seen, the performers seemed uncomfortable--we were almost on top of them. The dancers in August Tye's two pure-dance pieces also seemed ill at ease. Torn is a rather ordinary modern-dance solo tinged with ballet, X a more innovative duet with some wicked jazzy moves on pointe for the woman. Her partner didn't give her much support, however; and the subtext--woman rapes man--is both obvious and unmotivated. The close quarters appeared to make the performers acutely conscious of any failures of technique.

Rebecca Rossen and her dancers seemed to embrace the small space and proximity of the audience, however. Keith Carollo, Matthew Cobb, and Rossen herself faced us unblinkingly--especially Carollo, whose steady gaze actually pulled me in. Perhaps they weren't self-conscious partly because Rossen's dances have nothing to do with technique as we know it: in fact Carollo and Cobb have little or no formal dance training.

The duet the two men perform, Tenderly Struck, Rapidly Held, is closer to pure dance than either of the dance-theater pieces yet far more radical: this is an antidance of antimeaning, so preposterously anti that it makes us laugh. Whether the dancers are spouting B words (bitch, bastard, bimbos) or D words (dry heave, dimwit, darling) or flubbering their own or the other guy's lips (or are they miming brushing their teeth?), what they're doing makes no sense. David Pavkovic's sound design seems equally random. And Rossen in her choreography (she also credits the original dancers, Cobb and Anthony Bailey) abandons any pretense of connecting the dots--her phrasing too is radical, cutting the dance up into little disconnected bits, a stop-start approach that gives emphasis to certain comically overdone, awkward lifts. She does repeat some phrases--a face-down fall to the floor, Cobb hoisting Carollo toward the ceiling like a construction worker picking up a board--but they don't acquire meaning. The work-in-progress duet Rossen performs with Carollo, Bit, is less impressive: it's inchoate in a way Tenderly is not, and I was bothered by the disparity between Carollo's roughness and Rossen's more polished technique (though she wasn't trying to dance in a polished way).

Whatever the success or failure of any given piece, Rossen's work is avant-garde in a way the dance-theater pieces here are not. By abandoning the "ghost play," she frees us to see what's before our eyes and react to it spontaneously, no longer the prisoners of meaning.

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

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