Visual art by women and about women flanked the walls of the simple, wide-open chapel in the Ebenezer Lutheran Church. Most pieces depicted women in anguish, and one work in particular caught my eye. A set of two paintings on canvas featured a human figure shaped out of hardened, dehydrated vines which connected the figure to two landscapes of forest wasteland and torched desert. In both paintings, the figure—who I perceived as a shriveling Mother Earth—was mid-step, marching forward.
On Sept 20, a day where many around the globe convened to challenge today’s climate crisis in public protests inspired by one young woman, Greta Thunberg, a full audience of around 50 people fittingly gathered to kick off Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s “Art + Activism Series” with “The Forward March of Women.” Presenting a program of work created by women, about women and performed by mostly women, Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble (CDE) prompted the audience to not only recognize the immense talent and accomplishment of Chicago’s women artists, but also to laugh, cry, contemplate and relate to the complexity of a woman’s lived experience.
Following CDE’s mission to present multidisciplinary work that inspires radical change, the strength of the evening lied in the range of performing disciplines and how they created a stir in the audience.
The opening work, “Excerpts of Sexual Discovery and Liberation” by Loud Bodies used a blend of quirky contemporary movement, voice and, of course, twerking to reflect on the various ways women first experience their sexuality—and attempt to come to terms with it. (A disclosure: the author has worked as a freelance administrator for Loud Bodies.) Nelia Miller’s solo work “Cetology,” however, relied primarily on spoken dialogue and looped vocals with some integrated movement and projections to illustrate how women deplete themselves in the pursuit of patience, endless giving and the pleasure of men through the story of the wife Captain Ahab left behind in his quest for Moby Dick.
The athletic and voracious contemporary choreography of “Choices,” by Kaela Norwood, invested the audience in the abstract and political plight of one woman who appeared controlled rather than empowered by the choice she needed to make and the outcomes at hand. Sweetie Pie Productions relied on a blend of comedic movement, text and props to round out the night in with “Kitsch-In,” an exploration of how a modern-day mother grapples with her personal history, domestic responsibilities and relationship with her own mother that had the audience laughing out loud the entire time.
It was this curation of artists diverse in both discipline and perspective that created the magic of the night: how Loud Bodies juxtaposed loud hip sways to “The Real Slim Shady” with a quiet duet where two dancers wove under and through each other along the floor, arms connected; how that juxtaposed the women in “Choices,” who were flung through aggressive partnering, pulled by their limbs in to seemingly limp, yet expansive traveling lifts through the space; how that contrasted Miller’s relatively-still patience, that built into anger and desolation, the vivid emotion in her face and voice giving life to her end monologue; and how that juxtaposed the repetitions of outrageously weird and colorful movement, almost-pies-to-the-face and the phrase “is this enough?” in “Kitsch-In.”
The commitment to showcasing a series of art that accurately, creatively and meaningfully discusses issues of women’s rights, race and ethnicity, LGBTQIA+ rights and immigration is a hefty task. The topic of women’s rights is too general to thoroughly cover in just four pieces, but “The Forward March of Women” succeeded in engaging an intimate audience in the voices of four different artists and their specific contemplations of womanhood. With three other “Art + Activism” performances happening this year, I look forward to seeing how the themes introduced last night expand in significance as other artists add perspectives of race, sexual orientation and immigration into this artistic dialogue that Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble is curating.