Nestled into an overwhelmingly busy weekend of big premieres leading into a hectic Chicago Dance Month, Winifred Haun & Dancers chose to look backward. Lovingly and carefully restored for the company’s spring concert at the Ruth Page Center for the Performing Arts, the 2009 “Promise” is a dance inspired by John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” the great American novel that, admittedly, I’ve never read. Haun’s program notes offer some reassurance that it’s possible to love and appreciate the dance without knowing the novel, and while I agree, the context provided by knowing the story probably wouldn’t have hurt. While it is, indeed, possible to view and enjoy “Promise” without 600+ pages of preparation, the experience of viewers who have read ahead is, presumably, quite different from that of the viewers who haven’t.
This, perhaps, is the beauty of dance, or fodder for discussion about perceptions of dance amongst audience members. For this critic, it was mostly motivation to add “East of Eden” to her library. The characters embodied through “Promise” were so dense and committed, the sepia atmosphere so assuredly defined, that I felt a bit jealous of those who might be “in” on the secrets of what was unfolding onstage. The less informed audience member takes away an abstract narrative surrounding featured dancers Zada Cheeks and Ariel Dorsey. A torrid series of “I love you, I hate you” duets take place in, around, and on a single set of aerial straps hung from the rafters of the Ruth Page theater at center stage. Unlike performances dedicated to the aerial dance genre, the straps seem to assume a character of their own; the dancers deliberately fight and struggle with the simple beige straps, as if being held down and oppressed from reaching whatever is at the top. Each divertissement is bookended by migrations of the large cast in wistful pacings across the stage - a cast representing a wide-variety of ages and including Haun’s youngest two daughters.
Though much of the responsibility of Haun’s difficult, Graham-inspired phrases is charged to the dance’s five or six central characters, everyone on stage is fully committed and the dance is polished to a shine. Period costumes fade from light to dark as the evening wanes, the womens’ long skirts whisking through the space in several series of classic modern dance runs. Haun’s movement is mostly expressionless, with emotion infused in its writhing hand gestures and deep, visceral contractions. She treats the dance with a delicate hand – it is reckless and chaotic only when it has to be, and for Winifred Haun, the connection between how dancers train and how dancers perform is refreshingly apparent at all times.
Haun’s openers for Friday and Saturday’s performances (Kristina Isabelle and Lizzie Leopold, respectively) complimented the 55-minute “Promise,” and Friday’s offering from Isabelle featured a work for two dancers on stilts. Following last year’s restoration of “Levels and Lines” (2000), Isabelle continues to push the boundaries of what is possible on long legs. Though fairly evident that Friday’s “Duet #2” is still a work-in-progress, dancers Sarah Gonsiorowki and Angela Luem have noticeably grown as stilt artists (and as dancers!).
When the old is made new again, the results can be quite magical. In revisiting “Promise,” Winifred Haun & Dancers feels surprisingly revitalized. After many years on the shelf, Kristina Isabelle’s dusted off stilts have become a vital part of her fast-growing presence in the dance community. In an evening that called for pinpoint technique, aerial straps, and stilts, the risks were incredibly high (as was the potential for the whole thing to become a bit gimmicky). Somehow, “Promise” and “Duet #2” evaded cliché through the valiant efforts of two choreographers committed to celebrating technique and extending the possibilities of what concert dance can accomplish onstage.