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Flash Report 2, 7-23:
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
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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