Bodies are complicated. Our bodies are strong, but they’re also fragile. They’re private, but increasingly part of public debate. The policing of women’s bodies, the rights of transgender people to use public bathrooms, or stereotypes surrounding how black and brown bodies are perceived by a white minority which still holds the power in this country – these are not new social issues for us, but they’re urgently bubbling over in an inflammatory and polarized political climate. For many Americans, their bodies are on the ballot next Tuesday.
Dancers’ relationships with their bodies can be even more complicated. While the dancer is more intimately connected to a sense of physicality and its capacity for embodied expression, she becomes acutely aware of a transactional relationship between her body and the audience. The stage is the canvas, and the dancers are the paint; their bodies are a commodity. Sure, it’s a little more nuanced than that, but it will surprise no one to read that dancers and aesthetic athletes (gymnasts, figure skaters, synchronized swimmers, divers, etc.) are at a higher risk for developing body dysmorphia and disordered eating than athletes whose focus is on performance alone.
So it seems appropriate to use bodies as the artistic medium for Winifred Haun & Dancers' latest work about bodies, premiering Saturday at the Studebaker Theater. But for Haun and assistant director Solomon Bowser, who co-choreographed the dance titled “I am (not) this body,” this is just “what they do.”
To be fair, there’s nothing new about Winifred Haun making a dance; in nearly three decades as a Chicagoland-based choreographer she’s produced well over 100 works – a staggering amount for any career in dance making. Bowser started dancing with Haun in 2013 while still a student at the Dance Center of Columbia College, and “I am (not) this body” marks their first choreographic collaboration together.
Haun created the opening section for four of the company’s women (Talia Koylass, Amanda Milligan, Summer Smith and Jasmin Williams), followed by an interlude performed by a group of 10-year-old girls. The women nitpick at themselves and each other, poking and prodding at their chins, bellies and underarms, examining all their “imperfections.” Watching a rehearsal of the work, I got the sense that these women are simultaneously championing and supporting one another, and also part of the problem, seeking to, perhaps inadvertently, tear each other down. Each of the women takes a turn stepping forward in defiance, as though she’s found her voice, only to be dragged back by self-doubt, silenced by others, or both.
Bowser’s contributions come from a slightly different lens: Are the bodies of women and people of color a determinant in how the value or visibility of the person within that body is perceived? It’s a question he confronts with a variety of emotions; sections of the dance express joyful exuberance, sadness and pain, love and affection, and deep-seated anger, with some reference to the gestures and ideas Haun employs in the opening quartet. Jeff Hancock’s costumes further allude to a kind of duplicitous disparity, dressing each dancer in pedestrian clothing which is bright and boldly patterned on the front, and muted black and white on the back.
Above all, “I am (not) this body” is a dance, which, given the context, adds a layer of complexity to an already ramified topic. Haun has never shied away from her roots as a member of Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, calling on Holmes’ Chicago-style blending of ballet and classical modern techniques. Bowser appears to be following her lead, creating with a technical tenacity found less and less among young choreographers. And why not? In a dance about bodies, why not push theirs to the absolute limit?
“I am (not) this body” is accompanied by two additional works: revivals of Haun’s 2013 “Don’t Linger too Long” and “Bento,” created in 2011. Like a bento box of yummy small bites, the dance is a collection of appropriated excerpts (with intent and permission) created by choreographers ranging from Molly Shanahan, to Autumn Eckman, to Merce Cunningham.
“I am (not) this body” premieres Saturday at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. in the Fine Arts Building. General admission tickets are $35, with hot deals available at seechicagodance.com/event/i-am-not-body