I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I wasn’t a trendy kid, but the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series was one fad I glommed onto like the gum underneath my grade school desk. The books—typically page-turning action/thriller/mystery novels—gave readers choices, much like how today’s video games have a number of different outcomes and storylines for players to explore. These were books you could and would read again and again, especially if you weren’t satisfied with how it turned out the first time.
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels are part of choreographer Abby Williams Chin’s inspiration in making the latest work for her company, Cattywompus Dance. Titled “If/Then,” Chin sets up a series of vignettes, and lets the audience choose which ones they’d rather see.
I’m guessing that I’m quite a bit older than Chin, and that these novels weren’t as much a part of her childhood as they were mine. But there’s a deeper layer to “If/Then” about the narrative of our own lives, and to what degree we have agency over our stories. Do the decisions we make along the way lead to some pre-determined outcome, and what would have happened if we’d chosen something different?
It’s an existential question we all ask ourselves at some point: what if I’d chosen a different career, or moved to a different city, or married a different person, or had (or not had) children? Those are much bigger dilemmas than choosing which dance vignette to watch from among the seven “chapters” of the hour-long piece. On the other hand, Chin does succeed in sparking curiosity about the other cornered-off rooms fashioned throughout the oddly shaped Hairpin Arts Gallery. The instructions are to make a decision and commit, so you can’t simply wander, as one might in a museum; instead, you’ve got to see each section through until the end, when you’re offered another choice. Turn your head, though, and you might catch a glimpse of what you’re missing in another “room” tucked behind the impermanent walls and curtains which divide up the space.
It’s an interesting premise, and done well. Like Chin’s more conventional works for the proscenium, “If/Then” is thoughtful, detail-oriented and pretty to gaze at. Her six dancers entice you to choose them by standing near the entrance into their rooms—which are beautifully appointed with incandescent reading lamps, bookshelves filled with volumes on every topic, comfy chairs and a bit of faux greenery—reading a book.
After an opening solo by dancer Jess Duffy, we had to make our first choice. I first noticed Zach Bird, who had his nose in “If, Then.” Whether it was the Kate Hope Day novel, Tania Bucher’s volume on digital politics or the libretto for the Broadway musical, I couldn’t tell, but it seemed an appropriate place to start. Duffy hovered near his room, skimming some book about romance, and the two navigated a rather sweet duet which felt, in part, like unassuming lovers finding each other, then negotiating their relationship together.
I generally let the performers’ book choices guide my decisions, next making my way to Caroline Bondurant, who was flipping the pages of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s One,” and then staying in my place as Megan Brady picked up “Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse” by Alida Nugent. I stumbled on Duffy again, compelled by her choice of Soraya Chemaly’s “Rage Becomes Her,” then found my way to the largest of the performance spaces for a quartet, and another duet for Bird and Duffy.
The books, music and mood of the choreography shift throughout the night, growing into a more chaotic fervor that becomes at odds with each room’s serene setting and Chin’s prim and proper choice of costume. In the last vignette I saw, Duffy throws books all about to tip-toe and crawl on them, as if playing the “hot lava” game of my childhood, seemingly lost in her imagination. Bird is more ambivalent until the end, when they repeat bits of the pas de deux I’d seen before. Meanwhile, I heard the other performers throwing books around in another space, sparking some curiosity, but not enough to come back and see “If/Then” again.
The thing that’s most lacking is Chin’s choreography, which is generally a repetition of four or five gestures and phrases remixed over and over. So while the interpretation of “Rage Becomes Her” and “A Room of One's Own” are nuanced and shaped by their soloists to match the mood of their texts and the rising intensity of the musical score (which is the same no matter which room you’re in), the solos are, in essence, the same.
But it’s important to note Chin’s inventiveness in shaping such an immersive experience, which are difficult to execute and often leave me frustrated and confused. Here, I felt like I knew exactly what to do. And while there were plenty of choices, none felt like the wrong one. I only wish Chin’s imagination had extended further to her movement vocabulary, which is rich and fulfilling, but not quite broad enough to captivate mine.
“If/Then” continues through Saturday at the Hairpin Arts Center, 2810 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $24, available by clicking the event link below.