Dance Improvisation Fest "Duet with a Piece of String
Though improvised dance is all about freedom, sometimes freedom is enhanced by rules - consider the haiku and sonnet. Props, sound scores, predetermined guidelines, and stage talk give this highly fluid dance form the skeletal structures it needs to take shape as the particularly intimate, exciting kind of theater it is.
At Thursday night's showcase of six pieces (named after the title of Bebe Miller's solo), fest curator Lisa Gonzales told me she'd invited these particular artists because of their interest in work with a beginning, middle, and end. An eager overflow crowd packed Link's Hall for the second, often hilarious, always intriguing evening of performance in Chicago's first weeklong celebration of danced improv. That evening won't be repeated, but you can catch the flickering life of movement created on the spot through Sunday, at the Dance Center, then Holstein Park.
Suzy Grant and Donnell Williams's rollicking "< space left >" epitomized the way improvisers can plan for the interplay of risk and safety. Like many of this program's works, it combined movement and talk, here in a structure with clear rules: though the performance was completely G-rated, the two had plainly established something like BDSM safewords. An ancient slide projector provided a home-movie feel and became a hand-held spotlight as Grant and Williams, who've been good friends for eight years, took turns revealing details of each other's pasts, narratives that the mostly silent dancing partner could stop at any time by counting "5, 6, 7, 8" Trading the roles of emotional bottoms and tops back and forth, Williams and Grant provided a funny, intensely intimate peek into their real-life relationship.
Adding performers opens up exponentially more options. The five-member Factor Ricochet Ensemble (formed by Rachel Damon of Synapse Arts) moved without props of any kind in the freewheeling, exhilarating if inconclusive "Morphology." Brief bursts of talk helped give the experience direction, as did the frequent resolution into a single focal duet and the use of the back wall as a physical "quiet" zone. Damon, Adriana Durant, Marc Macaranas, Michael Rioux, and Ni'Ja Whitson expertly established (and sometimes dissolved) their own distinctive personas, anchoring the group, standing outside it, creating a joshing intimacy. The wide range of onstage personalities, which the dancers were free to subvert, produced an emotionally volatile, physically unpredictable, really fun in-the-moment experience.
Rebecca Bryant isolated the poles of hilarity and sadness in two pieces with highly defined, if nuanced, points to make. "A Moment of Danger," performed with percussionist Don Nichols, was a comic riff on the risks of intimacy. Approaching the audience, Nichols donned safety goggles as he assured us that the piece would not be dangerous --- while brandishing two circular saws (visual echoes of the cymbals he plays). Phallic bright-orange warning cones decorated the stage and, later, got moved around in a chess game of establishing and dissolving emotional boundaries. Bryant's angular movement and infrequent eye contact limned a defended but sympathetic character.
Bryant's "Suite Female: Part I" suggested the reason for the reserve, defined by Bryant's score. A rat-a-tat voiceover of "The woman who..." phrases coming fast and furious resolved into a kind of music hinting at an indefinable everywoman. In her moving feminist parable, Bryant's restricted, repetitive, wavelike motions grew bigger and bigger as she gave way to her impulses again and again. But those impulses were always contained --- and ultimately curtailed.
"Present: Time, Gift" by recent Columbia College grad Carly Czach, was another solo defined by the dancer's own sound design. Recorded snippets began with images of urban life, then shifted to images of the country. Czach's gentle, self-involved motions and frequent focus on a teakettle suggested a longing to return to another, more habitable place and time. Unfortunately, Czach's inwardness, self-caressing gestures, and seemingly random use of props didn't do much to draw the audience in.
Bebe Miller, of course, is a master at drawing people in. Experience does help. Her "Duet With Piece of String" employed minimal props to develop a mood, a character, an evolution. Entering, she set down a stool, then busied herself tying one end of the string to a radiator, unwrapping part of the ball, and rolling it across the stage. Expertly erasing the line between "real life" and performance, Miller transformed what seemed a cursory stagehand moment into art by "drawing" with string on the floor.
Miller's stage presence, her absolute command of a shifting persona, made "Duet" a true theatrical event. Whether she was sitting quietly, hands clasped in her lap like a little girl, or regarding the audience slyly or with bemused condescension, Miller understood and employed the power of the minute. She knows that a glance, a lifted eyebrow, lips tucked up in a small smile, hands so expressive they can stand in for the entire body --- all read, even in semidarkness. With the minimal definition of a few carefully selected props and Christian Marclay's and Michael Walls occasional static-y music, Miller somehow fashioned a strong character with a healthy skepticism about herself, us, and art: evanescent things that exist only to disappear.