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Flash Report 2, 7-23: Seeded Ground
Improvising in Balletjazzland

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO -- My friend, colleague, dancer and aspiring dance scholar Selene Carter did a bang-up job on her homage to her teachers David Beadle, Patrick Scully, Karen Nelson, Nancy Stark Smith, and Simone Forti last night at Links Hall. A passionate advocate of improvisation here in Midwest balletjazzland, Selene produced an elegant, intriguing performance event that contributed to a new, more critical understanding of improvisation in Chicago.

The notion that contact improvisation, improvisational scores, and the like are a standard part of the current modern dance lexicon has not quite hit the ground here. Outside the studio theater, Selene posted a diagram of "root systems flowing upwards," a sort of family tree of improvisational dance -- starting with Merce Cunningham and John Cage, flowing through Steve Paxton, Ruth Zaporah, local modern-dance grand dame Shirley Mordine, Simone Forti, and ending up with Selene herself. The idea that dance improvisation has a context, a lineage; and is in fact a movement of ideas through time on multiple levels, was concretized by this modest marker-on-paper document.

Selene gathered a host of similarly committed improvisers from various generations of Chicago's dance community to join her in dancing, talking, walking, and flowing through various scores that she had chosen and woven into a two-part evening. Bob Eisen, Kathleen Maltese, Donna Mandel, Sheldon B. Smith, Leslie Teng, Carter, and Charlie Vernon were dressed in watery green and mauve clothing organized by textile artist Cybele Moon. All was illuminated by John Fishback's chiaroscuro lighting.

Watching the performers move through the various scores - "Come as You Are," "Trio Passes," "Figure and Ground," "Accumulate and Describe Duet," "Sound Field," "Contact Improvisation Duet," "State," and "Rinsing the Brush" -- I realized that group improvisation is really all about energy and community awareness. Who's got the center of the energy, who's following that, who's amplifying it, who's detracting, who's adding another layer... I found myself following an invisible ball around the room with the various gestures, words, and sweeps of movement. When the awareness is there among the performers, it really clicks for the audience. Images and actions become defined and meaningful.

There was a beautiful moment during a transition between "Trio Passes" and "Figure and Ground." Sheldon B. Smith was left in a moment looking at his pointed finger during a Trio Pass with Carter and Teng. Eisen joined Carter and Teng standing behind Smith, and suddenly the Trio Pass became Smith's solo with a group of watchers. The watchers became a heaving, weighted backdrop as Smith continued to wiggle his finger in a circle.

Given the focus as the Figure, Smith developed a hilarious, understated solo. Noticing his core would start wiggling too, he'd put his hands on his center to stop it and then try again to wiggle his finger without a reaction in his center. Later Selene, who had been among the Ground, was unexpectedly left out of the spatial relationships of the other Ground-ers, and she suddenly became the Figure. John Fishback told me after the show he really enjoyed lighting this score, because he could throw light on Figure or Ground or part of both.

"Rinsing the Brush" is a score that I also learned when Simone Forti was in Chicago in March. The idea is that you enter the space either to lead or follow an activity, and when you have tapped out that particular idea, you leave, and re-assess what is going on onstage. It is an excellent training for energy awareness in yourself and in the group. By Selene's own admission, the group was not especially disciplined about this. It showed. By not sticking to the rules of the game, the improvisation became muddy.

One of the other memorable parts of the show was the "Sound Field/Audience" shift. Charlie Vernon, a veteran improviser who has not been seen onstage at Links for some years, wheeled a water cooler into the space. Smith and Fishback had placed sound equipment in the famous Links Hall closets. They sat on chairs with their heads in the closets and twiddled knobs (I guess!) to create a field of high and low vibrational sound. The dancers wordlessly handed out cups to the audience, who entered the sound field and got a drink. It was pleasing how the audience shift was accomplished with no verbal direction and flowed easily into the fabric of the performance.

The audience applauded long and appreciatively at the end. The ground has been well seeded!

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