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Transcending Technique 

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JOSEPH HOLMES CHICAGO DANCE THEATRE

at the Civic Opera House

March 11, 13, and 14

Sometimes it seems that the more aware you are of a dancer's technique, the less room there is for feeling. It may be that physical control doesn't jibe with our ideas of emotional abandon, or that excessive control makes us see the dancer as invulnerable, as someone beyond the reach of any real suffering and therefore any real feeling. But somehow, of course, some technicians do produce plenty of emotion--Susanne Linke, who appeared here last fall, springs to mind.

And now there's Patrick Mullaney, in the new solo Randy Duncan created for him. Unarmed, the only new work on Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre's program at the Civic Opera House last weekend, offers an almost perfect marriage of music, visual design, choreography, and the dancer's abilities. Mullaney, who first trained as a gymnast, is everything you'd want in a dancer: strong, elastic, secure, and capable of astonishing definition and speed, he's like some gorgeous mechanical creature. Yet until now he hasn't generally been a good instrument for feeling--perhaps because he's let us see only his technique. In many dances he adopts a comic persona; he tends to play the wicked schoolboy in such ensemble works as Duncan's Bittersweet Av and Keith Lee's Medley, grinning and winking shamelessly. But in Unarmed, Duncan has found a way to make Mullaney's technique part and parcel of an affecting and serious dance, and without changing or in any way devaluing the dancer's technical accomplishment.

Even without the program note we'd know that Unarmed is antiwar: the music is Sinead O'Connor's "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," and though it was difficult to understand the lyrics over the sound system, the contrast between O'Connor's soft, high, mournful voice and the militaristic drumbeats beneath it tells us everything we need to know--establishes the difference between suffering, vulnerable humanity and a rigid, inhuman military. Catherine Young's lighting design at first suggests exploding bombs; throughout, whether the dancer is harshly spotlighted or bathed in a grayish wash, the stage looks dark and the dancer isolated.

Initially Mullaney stands stiff and straight facing us, as if at attention. That pose is Unarmed's one crucial reference point: again and again Mullaney drops or explodes into contorted or soft shapes or phrases, always abbreviated but full of feeling, only to return to some form of this slim, uninflected vertical line. And because he moves so quickly, the effect is of a jackknife being switched open and closed over and over--he looks almost schizophrenic, and certainly tortured. The schizophrenia of the movement matches the contrasts in the music: when Mullaney stands at attention we hear the drumbeats, and when he moves we see the pain at the song's heart, in the singing.

Kurt Jooss's 1932 The Green Table is the alpha and omega of war protest: it lays open not only the soldier's plight and the grief of the women left behind but also the corruption of the diplomatic table and of profiteering. Duncan's Unarmed is by design a small, slight work; but it also attacks war--from the inside, from the point of view of the soldier who may fight but who agonizes over his role. Mullaney rarely mimes military gestures, but because everything he does has an almost militaristic quickness and precision (and some of the choreography is openly gymnastic: a one-handed cartwheel, for instance), he makes a very believable soldier. So the contrasts he establishes to that soldierly technique are all the more expressive: barrel turns as soft and melting as beaten butter look genuinely contemplative, not boastful. And when he holds his arms out stiff before his face and repeatedly pushes something--fear, doubt, the enemy?--away with one hand, he looks genuinely anguished. All without mugging of any kind.

In an understated, abstract dance like Unarmed, context is everything: the music, the recent war in the Persian Gulf. I think it's possible to give this work an even larger amplitude: it also seems a meditation on manhood. The old, militaristic model--stand up straight, don't cry, do what you're told--seems not only false but destructive. And yet what substitute have we got? Mullaney dances this dilemma with all his usual technical precision and a new feeling: it's as if this dance has peeled away a layer of his skin to reveal something raw and genuine.

The more I see of Duncan's work, the more capable I think he is of emotional, even spiritual power. You can see it in a dance like Copland Motets (1991), where the close partnering sometimes looks clotted rather than lofty yet the aim is consistently transcendent. Aaron Copland's a cappella music (in a taped version by the Oriana Singers) is central to this work; in Duncan's 1986 Turning Tides, Sam Harris's music carries the dance. Duncan often relies on vocal music's complex, uneven phrasing and the impact of the lyrics to supply the mood and some of the message and development of his dances. That may be a limitation of sorts, and yet there's something appropriate and even inspired in the symbiotic relationship Duncan develops between music and movement. It may be that he frequently chooses vocal music out of a wish to communicate something important rather than merely entertain. A piece like Women's Work (1990), which uses an instrumental score by Tom Kast, doesn't seem to go anywhere: the creative impulse behind it seems weak, though I suspect the music is more symptom than source of the problem.

As always, the Holmes troupe danced splendidly. Sometimes they even managed to escape the bounds of their astonishing technique. On the evening I was there the dancers allowed Turning Tides (a work Duncan made in response to Holmes's death, so it has much latent power) to have a few rough edges--they danced it full out rather than precisely. It's not a subtle or choreographically complicated work, so why not do it with all the raw power of the song's pounding choruses? Cuitlahuac Suarez's dancing in "Adrift," the solo that opens Turning Tides, was soft, fluid, heartfelt--like Duncan's when he performed the solo himself several years ago.

Ariane Dolan really carried Women's Work, giving it the combination of rhythmic precision and loose limbs it needs to move along. Yet in Holmes's He and She (1983) she was so icy, so technically precise, that no emotion was possible, at least for me. That's partly the fault of the choreography: Holmes substituted technical tricks for emotional climaxes--near the end of this duet the woman swings her leg up to the man's shoulder and sets it there, then is hung upside down in the splits. How romantic. Lee's Medley (1989) and Holmes's Oh Mary Don't You Weep (1974) rounded out this program, a curious mix of second-rate choreography exceedingly well performed and first-rate choreography both well performed and well felt.

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

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