Breakbone Dance Co. "Excavation of Remains"
Being in the presence of death -- even just thinking about it -- induces in people behavior radically different than theirs is in any other circumstance. Profound mystery and the ultimate end lead many to become erratic or inappropriate, not to mention uncomfortable. Something of this common reaction seems to have come over Atalee Judy's newest work Excavation of Remains: In the face of death, its announced subject matter, it hurries and flinches, laughs nervously and shifts in its seat. A powerful, unique work might be excavated from within this material, but in present form it illuminates neither its performers nor the (mostly) real-life characters they portray.
Seven subjects who have passed on are resurrected by Breakbone's equal number of dancers; a motley crew, they range from relatives (Nikki DiGioia-Stachon plays her Italian nona) to pop-cultural icons (Suzy Grant as "Mama" Cass Elliott) to the semi-obscure deceased of local interest (Atalee Judy's runner felled by heat in the 2007 Chicago marathon is a character based on Chad Schieber). Each narrative appears rougly twice, but more to hammer home points made the first time out than to finish or deepen their initiations. Curiouser, the moments of death themselves when reenacted, the points upon which Excavation of Remains' entire raison d're rests, pass in an instant and whichever dancer acts out the demise is only momentarily still. Then, it's pop back on your feet and we're off and (literally) running into the next vignette, not unlike the way children "die" when playing Cops and Robbers: Death is no fun! Let's get back to our game.
In the end, it's the absence of surprise that aborts what this work could have been, for what will death be for any of us but the biggest surprise of our lives? The dancers enter the space in t-shirts emblazoned with cold descriptors of fatality ripped from their autopsy reports: "Cancer," "Cardiac Arrest," "Suicide." Supine with toe tags hanging from their feet, their first gesture is a gasp in unison into their awareness of the afterlife. In short order there's pat chatter about how each met their end that their shirts have already made unnecessary. And it's a shame, because this is a talented group of dancers that doesn't get nearly enough opportunities to show it. A prologue and epilogue -- both pure-dance ensemble constructions -- are compelling, engaging examples of fresh composition in the vein of Bill T. Jones and Marie Chouinard.
Billed as "darkly comedic," jokes do abound in this piece. A recurring character is Judy in a smashing tuxedo subtly bedazzled with a skeleton as game-show-host challenging Suzanne Dado to choose her emotions as if bidding on a Showcase Showdown. But too often they're simply not funny and, in the case of Mama Cass' arch nemesis -- a giant, incredible ham sandwich costume -- the punchline's historical inaccuracy isn't forgiven by clear-enough signals that the error is intentional.
I may have said quite recently that I didn't mind an evening of dance not touching upon its purported subject. I don't mean to contradict that statement but I do believe something about choosing to make art about death changes the situation somewhat. And Excavation of Remainsis no interminable failure: Besides the aforementioned solid-if-seldom dancing, there's an impressive rethinking of the usually-hidden but lovely theater at Hamlin Park, nice integration of video (by Carl Wiedemann), and what I hope will spread like the flu -- a completely waste-free audience experience. Wooden tickets will be repurposed for subsequent shows and the program info is available online and in the lobby as opposed to on paper. One can't shake the feeling, though, that this work is but a fraction of what it could and should have been.