The Ascetic Impulse | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader

The Ascetic Impulse 


at Link's Hall, through August 31

To prepare for performing his new dance, Bus Tales, Bob Eisen tells us, he spends at least 15 minutes every day sitting in a dark closet. He implies that sitting in a closet puts him into the same frame of mind as the monthlong bus tour he made recently. Eisen loves to travel on Greyhound buses, but he doesn't like what many people say they like--the colorful passengers. He just likes to sit still for hours at a time.

Sitting still--on a bus or in a closet--is an ascetic act out of place in this pleasure-seeking world. And Eisen's dances have often been ascetic: he strips away theatrical elements and takes bodies to the extremes of their endurance; he takes audiences to the limits of their endurance as well. In this new dance, asceticism is the subject rather than his method.

The dance starts slowly. Eisen, who has been waiting in a closet that opens directly onto the Link's Hall stage, carries what looks like a rowing machine out of it; he explains that it was too crowded in there and then goes back into the closet for another five minutes while the audience gets to admire Tom Melvin's mural of a Greyhound bus covering the back wall. When Eisen comes out a second time, he launches into a rambling story of his recent monthlong bus trip. His story seems to be going nowhere until he starts talking about moments during the trip when he tried to stop thinking. He coached himself, building up his enthusiasm, as if not thinking were a feat of superhuman mental strength. Telling the story, Eisen starts gesturing frenetically; the gestures become a little dance of frustration. It's a funny dance, a parody of self-involved spiritual seekers, and it emerges naturally from Eisen's story.

Eisen's ascetic impulse--to stop thinking and erase painful self-awareness--is not unusual. It's often the motivation for meditating, for using mind-altering chemicals, and for dancing, as Eisen shows in the second section. He straps himself into the machine he dragged out of the closet, which turns out to be a machine for improving a dancer's turnout. As he talks about his dream of having a 180-degree turnout, Eisen cranks the machine's handle until his legs are spread wide apart; then he relaxes and stretches, touching his toes with his hands. The position looks terribly painful; perhaps the only way to succeed in such painful exercises is to stop thinking entirely.

The third and final section of Bus Tales is an improvised duet with Julie Worden that's refreshingly unself-conscious. Eisen follows Merce Cunningham in the idea that movement plain and simple is enough for an interesting dance; themes, messages, and formal structures are not necessary. This duet does have a structure: a movement phrase that's the basis of the improvisation, as a melody may be the basis of a jazz improvisation. But the dance is engaging because of the dynamics between the dancers. Worden seems a little in awe of the older Eisen, allowing him to initiate their interactions, but she responds without self-consciousness. Both Eisen and Worden simply try to discover new moves, and find several that twine and turn back on themselves and seem bright and new. The simplicity of their intent makes an interesting dance to watch, but it may not appeal to an audience expecting a conventional dance; the particular pleasure in this work is the way Eisen introduces and justifies his style.

Eisen and Worden will be performing Bus Tales every Tuesday in August for five consecutive installments of the "Fourth Annual Chance Dance Fest." They'll be joined by other performers each night. On August 10 Sheldon Smith and Amy Alt performed a duet choreographed by both and another dance, a trio with Worden, by Smith. Dance for Two Jr. is a shortened version of Smith and Alt's Dance for Two, a romantic duet that suddenly evolves into wrestling holds and pratfalls. Without the theatrical elements of the full-length dance, this version easily slips from the mind, except for some of Alt's turns in attitude: Alt is a tall, strong dancer whose moves can etch a clear image in memory.

In Smith's Momentum Is Everything (Dances From the T-Bar Inn), layers of inspired clowning cover a moment of pain. The dance begins in darkness with Smith's voice (in voice-over) telling a story about a man talking on the telephone to his girlfriend in a distant city. In a lovely, surreal image, he describes the man reaching through the phone line and his disembodied hand caressing the woman, reaching down to the "familiar indentation of her belly button." When the man confesses that he's fallen in love with another woman, his girlfriend stares at the disembodied hand coming out of her telephone and slams the receiver down.

The feeling in this story seems real, but Smith surrounds it with outrageous clowning. As the story starts, Smith walks onto a darkened stage wearing a leotard and a motorcycle helmet from which protrude six antennalike stalks with penlights attached to the ends; he looks like a nocturnal insect. A dozen penlights bounce and twirl on wound-up rubber bands attached to floor lamps around the perimeter of the stage. Alt and Worden dance in semidarkness, to little effect. Smith's voice tells another story about a man in a pin-striped swimming suit turning a beautiful woman into a human Hula Hoop. Dry-ice fog shoots onto the stage. Smith, Worden, and Alt take turns plinking on an out-of-tune guitar, lampooning musical styles. Finally the entertaining stories turn into self-consciously bad writing. It's all funny as hell and completely empty. Smith starts with a good image of the difficulties of a long-distance relationship, then covers it with so many layers of clowning it means nothing. I'd rather spend my time sitting still on a long-distance bus trip.

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

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

More by Terry Brennan

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Henchpeople Jarvis Square Theater
July 09
Galleries & Museums
May 28

Popular Stories

  • Book It

    New and recent book releases from Chicago authors and publishers
  • A silence louder than words

    How allegations of sexual abuse exposed cracks in the foundation of Young Chicago Authors, Free Write Arts & Literacy, and the city’s spoken word community
  • Comedy is back, baby!

    A glimpse at how stand-ups coped during the pandemic and made their triumphant return to telling jokes again.
  • Black fatherhood

    Black men are rarely afforded the luxury of being seen as nurturers and caregivers.