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Small World, Lonely Man 

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at the Dance Center of Columbia College

October 29-31


Lane Alexander

at Orchestra Hall

October 28

If we say of someone "he lives in a small world," we're obviously speaking metaphorically. We all live in the same physical world, though some of us have the misfortune of a constrained social world. But dance can refresh a metaphor by taking it literally; dance makes us see the metaphor and experience the feelings it compresses.

Montreal's Paul-Andre Fortier imagines and actually realizes a small world: a six-by-ten-foot platform, created by artist Betty Goodwin, whose back third rises in a slight incline and whose front two-thirds is cut with a deep trench--it's a small world, but not without slight variations. For the one hour of La tentation de la transparence ("The Temptation of Transparency") we watch a man live in his small world (Fortier based the dance on a novel about a man living in Flanders at the end of the Renaissance).

With the poetic compression of Doris Humphrey's Day on Earth, this dance covers the course of the man's life, as he discovers the shape of his small world, paces its length, tries to escape it, rebels against it, despairs, accepts his small world, loves it, and is buried in it.

At moments he flaps his arms as if in a pathetic attempt to fly away; stiffly bouncing on his toes, he inches his way up the incline at the rear of the platform as if climbing to the top of a hill from which he'll fly away. After he backs down the incline, we see him touch the ground and himself with a cupped hand as if hesitantly caressing his world. When he seems to accept the foolishness of his attempts to fly away, Fortier's character repeats the flying movements but then wraps himself in his own arms, as if wrapping useless wings around himself, and laughs--at his own foolishness at first and then in a kind of shame and despair. Catching every nuance of this man's struggle against external limitations, Fortier succeeds in making his character one with whom everyone can identify.

Dance traditionally celebrates youth and strength: attractive people in brightly colored costumes sweeping across a stage. By contrast this lonely man in a dun-colored costume is hard to watch for a full hour. He moves hesitantly and naively, never beautifully. His face is a Brueghel peasant's face. In his moments of anguish, as he struggles against his fate, and in his moments of transcendence, he looks both ecstatic and bovine.

Despite the limitation on materials Fortier has imposed, the dance is mesmerizing. His decades of dancing always show, in how he articulates a movement and in the weight and intent he gives to it. His unwavering focus captures and holds our attention, drawing us into the character. Gaetan Leboeuf's music always conveys the nuanced feeling of Fortier's character, moving from one situation to another as the character does. The beauty of this dance is carried by the music and by Fortier's focused intent.

Though Fortier has tremendous skills, La tentation de la transparence has a slightly old-fashioned feeling to it. Many of his movement ideas are transparently simple, such as the beating arms to symbolize flight. And Fortier keeps returning to certain movement ideas, as if unnecessarily reassuring an audience unsettled by the lack of familiar elements. His world-weary narrative also put me off: my New World sensibility says that no one is really trapped in a small world but has chosen it for some reason, though that reason may be simple cowardice. Fortier's sensibility is a little too consciously poetic for me to trust.

Fortier's performance was the first of four in the Dance Center's New World/New Art '92 festival, which continues through November 14.

In the last few years Chicago has become home to several world-class tap dancers. Sarah Petronio, who previously ran a school in Paris, has developed a style using the syncopated rhythms of jazz. Jimmy Payne, a longtime tapper associated with the DuSable Museum, has gathered a collection of young students who dance in the old style. But the Hollywood hoofer stereotype of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire has been difficult to escape. The most conspicuous recent effort to change tap dancing's image was Lane Alexander's performance of Morton Gould's Tap Dance Concerto at Orchestra Hall.

Gould's work is a true concerto for a tap dancer as a solo instrument. Alexander danced in front of the Chicago Sinfonietta, tapping out classical rhythms; he alternately danced solos, accompanied the orchestra, and was accompanied by them. Gould created certain rhythms, and Alexander made the choreography to match.

Kelly and Astaire relied on a limited number of steps, each of which had a different rhythmic pattern. So they could produce some rhythmic patterns but not others. Their kind of tapping was essentially a bag of tricks, a fact that only the superb showmanship of a Kelly or Astaire could disguise.

Alexander seldom falls back on a tapper's bag of tricks, however, and visual effects and showmanship take a backseat to musical clarity. When a rhythm repeats, Alexander may use different steps to create it. He invents new steps, such as a double turn in which his foot sneaks out to make a single tap on an offbeat. Alexander is as likely to leap into a tap, an unusual move, as he is to slide to the side with a big flourish--an old-fashioned tapper's move. And whatever the steps, Alexander is always exactly on the beat. Altogether this was a generous, virtuoso performance.

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


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