recent chicago dances, in the balance.
Balance was vital, but it was never a still point with the dancer rigidly posed in a given position: rather, it was a series of micro adjustments and small physical maneuvers. — Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet
Over the course of the last season, during a time when many in the United States have felt knocked off their feet by political events and the loss of decorum in public life, a number of Chicago dances probed the topic of balance. Not the Fox News Orwellian notion of “fair and balanced,” mind you, but rather the deeper meanings of symmetry, proportion, orchestration, justice, grace, equipose. What does it mean to remain upright?
This question, one might argue, is present in any dance, but what distinguished pieces by Paige Cunningham Caldarella, The Cambrians, Ligia Lewis, Liz Gerring Dance Company, and Mordine & Company Dance Theater was that each performance crystallized in a moment of addressing how to stay on your toes.
Close to the beginning of Paige Cunningham Caldarella’s Verge, dancer Damon Green sprinted into Links Hall in a sort of deconstructed ballet leotard and then flopped onto his belly, sliding across the floor. So much for even wanting to stay on your feet. But later in the piece, he offered a beautiful solo that contrasted to the belly flop, that brought it to a point. Beginning with flowing movements taken from his studies of vogueing, with his arms lifted up and around his head, Green (full disclosure: I have worked with Damon in my role as dramaturg for another company, The Seldoms) eventually moved off his toes into a circling movement around the space of the stage. Spinning, he worked with centripetal force, evoking a sense of a vortex around which he danced, into which he (and we with him) might fall, but also out of which he drew enormous power, enormous momentum. Pushing himself, he offered a reminder that poise need not be found only in stillness. Poise also arises from a certain mode of effort, brought to light in a blur, at the edge of control.
Cunningham Caldarella has a strong trace of ballet in her contemporary dance choreography. She herself danced with Merce Cunningham (no relation however) and much of the rest of Verge contained a sort of bent exploration of ballet. But unlike in Merce Cunningham’s work, the lurking forms of the pirouette and plié were less about a sort of cubist abstraction of traditional ballet than they were about this issue of balance: how do you keep it? When do you require leaning on the shoulder of another, as the four dancers—Green, Keesha Beckford, Jess Duffy, and Chloe Grace Michels—sometimes did? When do you need to push off them to be on your own? The goal did not seem to always be soaring or defying gravity so much as staying aligned, intact, aloft under pressures of motion, often lateral in nature. The dancers found resources—in each other and on their own. Running one direction only to shift back the other way suddenly, falling in and out of line as an ensemble, downstage or to the back, the dancers never lost their footing even as they verged on doing so.
If Verge kept its balance under the sway of various forces that acted like crosswinds, The Cambrians’s Empress Archer took place on a tilt. The work was really a “mashup,” as the program notes put it, of movement generated by 12 choreographers that dancers Ariel Friedman and Meredith Webster along with Cambrians Creative Director Benjamin Holliday Wardell remixed and reassembled into a series of 15 sections. The most interesting recurring moment found Friedman and Webster linking arms and legs and then leaning, like counterweights, away from each other. They walked, step by step, around the floor at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Neither could achieve such an angled position alone—they would simply fall over—but together, linked but cantilevered, they kept their balance.
Ligia Lewis’s minor matters, which appeared at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Dance Studio as part of the OnEdge series, was a trio that explored “questions of the black body within the frame of the black box.” These were not minor matters at all given the current political climate, and Lewis and her fellow dancers Jonathan Gonzalez and Hector Thami Manekehla moved powerfully from the outrageous to the quiet and back again, sometimes intensely challenging the audience, at other times inviting deep empathy and tenderness from the viewer (I must admit to missing the very beginning of the piece due to the room being full, however even from part way in, this was a powerful performance).
The audience receded from view at the end of the piece when Lewis, Gonzalez, and Manekehla began to climb atop one another in a sort of scrum against the walls of the room, in what might be understood as a version of Simone Forti’s famous Huddle Dance infused with the questions raised by Black Lives Matter. On each others backs and shoulders, over each other, they stretched for the ceiling, jostling, in contention, as if they were in a pit, gasping and grasping for freedom. They seemed to be competing with each other. Slowly, however, they also began to look like they were simultaneously supporting each other.
Which is to say that at first the movement looked like a portrayal of people hurting each other under pressure, suffering from the unjust imbalances placed upon them, the almost unbearable heights to which they had to climb to survive, only one maybe able to make it over. It was a kind of pyramid scheme of bodies, always threatening to tumble down and fall apart, but then, as they kept climbing over, on, atop, one another, something else emerged too: the competition started to contain elements of cooperation, adjustment, recalibration.
They didn’t just destroy each other. Nor, despite their pushing, shoving, and climbing, did the trio merely fall over or fall apart. Instead, no dancer ever triumphed over the others, no dancer was left behind. The scramble started to resemble something like a shared climb toward liberation, but one in which the individuals never vanished into the whole configuration. Balance and beauty were to be found in how separate efforts came into a surprising alignment, in the transformation of distinguishable yearning into a coordinated climb. This was not harmony. It wasn’t order. It was not a classical notion of balance. Instead, Lewis’s minor matters expressed pain, conflict, frustration, exhaustion, tension among the three dancers; but it also suggested that some other sense of collectivity—balanced in its way—arose from the striving scrum as well.
Like Lewis, the Liz Gerring Dance Company did not shy away from extremely difficult, challenging choreography at Columbia College’s Dance Center. Instead of a black box, Horizon took place in a rectangular white box, illuminated by Dan Flavin-esque beams of florescent lighting that slowly shifted colors. In solos, duets, and larger ensemble work, the movements were so physically challenging that the dancers sometimes shook when they held certain positions for extended periods of time. Gerring was not interested in showing balance as seamless grace, but rather as difficult strength. Exertion was exposed, and a kind of honest balance appeared in the bold disclosure of what it took simply not to fall down.
And then there was Shirley Mordine & Company Dance Theater’s Collisions, which emerged from the long-time Chicago choreographer’s international engagements with Hema Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre and Ayato Kato of Art Union Humanscape, among others. Mordine is interested in how we might handle the many collisions of culture and perspective in an increasingly interconnected, global society. Later in the work at Links Hall, dancers leapt up against each other only to be thrown back, but the most provocative moment in the new piece occurred close to its start, when two dancers purposefully came close to colliding before suddenly turning aside. Rather than bump into one another, they made space, averting a collision. And from that moment of thoughtful consideration, other kinds of impacts emerged, more productive collisions of culture, style, sensibility that mingled and merged, interwoven into a suggestive patchwork rather than pummeled into a submissive fabrication. Here balance was to be found in the more subtle movements between holding back and holding forth. If organized and sequenced creatively, give and take not only required balance, it could also generate it too.