“Listen” Breaks the Gender/Genre Mold

We were asked to sit close – uncomfortably close – at the edge of the performance space in Hamlin Park’s second floor theater for “Listen…” Feb 22 and 23. It wasn’t about making us uncomfortable, but about giving a collective hug to the collaborative effort of performers Emma Draves and Andy Slavin. The other arm of the hug was the exposed upper stage, highlighting the space’s architectural oddities often hidden by black drapery. The creamy back wall would later serve as a projection surface on which to cast shadows of Draves and Slavin's bodies, thanks to bewitching lighting from Jacob Snodgrass. Draves and Slavin begin by draping their bodies off of waist-high platforms, hands and feet dangling from surfaces on which neither of them quite fit. They slowly writhe atop their pedestals, looking comfortable and connected to these hard, unforgiving props in some moments, and completely at odds with them in others. Each slowly brings a fist to their face, or rings their hands about their abdomen, or lifts the arms to a reclined first or fourth position. They do this for a long time.

These props offer a multilevel visual landscape to Hamlin’s typically long, narrow space. Slavin leaves the perch first, to explore the confined space beneath. Draves follows suit, molding her body to stretch and bend in and out of yoga arm and head stands to make her body fit in a not-quite-right space. The geometric cubes serve as a sort of slow motion jungle gym for Draves and Slavin to fold in and out of. This seems fitting for a number of reasons, (the least of which is a raucous playgroup of myriad small people romping in the room next door). 

But it’s an inevitably dangerous playground, evidenced by the bumps and bruises on each dancer’s body. “Listen…” is informed by feminist and queer theory and the personal experiences of the performers related to parenthood, gender identity, and fitting into places in which individuals do not feel welcome. One could easily have had a lecture/discussion on this topic, but the range of movement aesthetics at play are a critical piece of this puzzle. Draves, trained in classical ballet, modern, post-modern, classical bharatanayam and somatic, melds her movement histories together in such a way that she is really the only person who can adequately perform her choreography.Emma Draves

You know this if you’ve ever seen Emma Draves dance, but what of Slavin? Theirs is a different sort of movement history, which similarly blends everything from ballet to stilt walking, breaking the hard-set boundaries dance often places on masculine and feminine archetypes. The guys wear the pants and the ladies wear the skirts; the men lift the women and the women are sylphs. Slavin rides the middle.

Barry Bennett’s sound score mixing atmospheric meditations with a percussive drum pulse introduces musical perplexities too, begging: Is there room in dance for all these deep, complex, idiosyncratic histories?

Of course there is, but let me get back to my point about those prop pieces and the bruises on their legs. Dance in its strictest sense can be a fickle beast, discounting or discarding dancers who don’t fit the mold, like those who take time off to become mothers; express alternative gender, body type or sexuality identities; or those whose interests intersect disparate fields of study. This is not unique to dance. Think of the barrier-breaking women in STEM, or queer and transgender people in politics. The point is, pioneering anything is not easy, and takes grit, resilience, and patience – and still could end in disappointment.

But broadening the scope of your fractured experience to include the voice of another’s, regardless of how different that experience is from yours, can yield a productive conversation, and, as it turns out, a richly satisfying dance.

The slow build in the exploration of those set pieces dissolves into the meat of this piece: a section of gravitas modern dancing that has gelled over the course of a year (first seen at the Harvest Festival Contemporary Dance Festival last fall). It doesn’t matter that Draves and Slavin don’t dance in exactly the same way or approach the movement from exactly the same trajectory. That’s the point. They make physical contact only a few times during the hour-long piece, make eye contact even less, and when they do, they lean away to again embark on side-by-side journeys that look similar, but aren’t.

Draves and Slavin will continue their work as part of Link’s Hall’s SET FREE series over the spring and summer seasons. Thank goodness for that; more people should see it.

Lauren Warnecke is the dance writer and critic for the Chicago Tribune.