Poured concrete, free jazz and Winifred Haun make curious bedfellows at Unity Temple

A double bill of dance and music by Winifred Haun and Dancers and the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project had the added benefit of showcasing one of Oak Park’s many architectural gems, drawing city folks and Oak Parkers alike to the heart of the West suburban enclave Saturday.

Unity Temple is a Unitarian Universalist church whose current house of worship was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a member of the congregation when, in 1905, its wood-framed gothic revival structure was struck by lighting and burned down. Last year, Unity Temple was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, following a $25-million renovation that concluded in 2017.

Indeed, this remarkable building—which has all the hallmarks of a Frank Lloyd Wright design—is an overbearing star of this show. Exposed poured concrete and an abundance of right angles are softened by rich wood, stained glass, and natural light entering through etched windows on all four walls and in the ceiling. It is undoubtedly a magnificent space, but in many ways, Unity Temple worked against its performers.

The evening opened with “Bento,” Haun’s 2011 compilation of mini-dances curated to include sections by Randy Duncan, Nick Pupillo and Autumn Eckman, plus a few more by Haun inspired by artists such as Merce Cunningham and Eiko & Koma. It’s a nice piece, set to an energizing percussion score by Barry Bennett. And it simply does not fit in this space. Crammed between the first row of pews and a raised pulpit at the nexus of the sanctuary, Haun’s six dancers do their level best to deliver “Bento’s” exacting technique on a carpeted surface. 

These capable performers cannot come close to dancing full-out—the risks presented by this space probably outweigh the benefits of doing so—and color changes from a pair of light fixtures in the balcony turning the dancers shades of red or green, seemingly at random, pay no favors to this piece.

Two compositions by music director Renee Baker, of the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project (CMOP), come next, with the second of those accompanying a new dance by Haun called “Light in Winter.”

Unlike “Bento,” “Light in Winter” was specifically made for this space, exploiting its architectural features by tucking dancers into stairwells, having them appear on all three tiers of seating and climbing on and over concrete pedestals which anchor the temple at its corners. 

Haun’s choreography, as per usual, is a compelling blend of techniques; she draws from choreographers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey (some of whose dances were performed at Unity Temple a decade ago by another Oak Park dance company, Momenta) and Randy Duncan, who Haun danced for in the ‘80s as a member of the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre. 

The extended lines and angular nature of Haun’s movement vocabulary echo the space her dancers inhabit, while Baker’s accompanying composition is rife with a playful bending of chord structures in a blended genre that combines principles of American, African and European musical traditions. Played by CMOP musicians including double bass, cello, woodwinds, vocals and djembe, Unity Temple’s acoustics are quite extraordinary, even with the musicians arranged in the sub-basement adjacent to the sanctuary, presumably a space occupied by the choir during church services. I wish they too had been scattered about the space to provide interesting opportunities for panning—logistically tricky, but what a delight it could have been to hear flute from the gallery, djembe from the basement, vocals from the pulpit, etc., creating a sonic environment as curious and unpredictable as Baker's music itself.

I was really sold on “Light in Winter” until it turned into a scarf dance near its conclusion, with the dancers waving colored fabrics about and ignoring the parallels previously made between Wright’s lines and textures and the choreography. Superfluous at best, this choice added no substance or consequence to the piece. The ending, however, is gorgeous: “Light in Winter’s” six dancers return to a platform behind the pulpit, the place where they began the piece, leaning casually against a wooden ledge that’s been sodden with generations of elbows as Wright’s incandescent light fixtures softly fade this radiant place into darkness, natural sunlight having now passed below the horizon.