This Is Not a Dance Review

the seldoms, this is not a dance concert @ harris theater, 2/4/12.

“This is not a dance concert.” As the show’s name suggests, The Seldoms’ tenth anniversary performance at the Harris Theater sought to demystify dance, to play down the seriousness of contemporary dance performance. What was wonderful about this concert that was not a concert was that it did so in the name of re-enchanting contemporary dance.

This Is Not a Dance Concert was, of course precisely and exactly about being a dance concert. Everything took place under the Dan Flavin-esque neon lights of cavernous Harris Theater, whose bunker-like, hillside structure quite literally turns the experience of going to a performance space upside down (if you come in from the sidewalk, you enter at the roof and balconies to go down rather than up to your seats). Only the theater was deconstructed, its very edifice not the setting for the not-concert, but rather part of the show.

The Seldoms, This Is Not A Dance Concert, Harris Theater.

The Seldoms broke the audience up into groups, taking them from station to station, emphasizing the spaces in which the dances were taking place. The audience moved to different locations around the Harris, in concert with the dancers at this not-dance concert. Note cards that were handed out at each station asked silly questions and made odd comments about the venue. For instance, did you know that the first balcony is 18 feet below the lake line, meaning that you could dip your ankles in the water from there.

The choreography continued this spirit of reversals, twists, inversions, and negations. What each performance at the various stations shared was that they went deep by skimming the surface. The not-dance became the dance. We watched a performance set to Yelp.com reviews of the bathrooms at the Harris. There was a dance among the seats in the empty theater itself that was about audience members coughing at performances. We watched four Seldoms turn the silver benches of the lobby into a kind of acrobatic obstacle course. “Women flying through the air, strong men,” one of the dancers exclaimed, “What’s not to like?!” Led backstage, we watched two of the male dancers battle over costumes, waging their struggle in a cherry  picker forklift bucket and in and around a coat rack on wheels. The performance ended in a  gigantic bingo game with the entire audience sitting on stage.

Part of the brilliance of the Seldoms is that they have fun—and want the audience to have fun—but they are also dead serious. They are amazingly athletic and expressive performers, virtuosos who place their skills in service of sensations and ideas. Look at me becomes a means of asking viewers to look all around themselves—and to look, if for a moment, within. It was all about heightening a sense of immediacy and discovering something at once fleeting and lasting, superficial and permanent, there.

Perhaps the best choice by Seldoms choreographer Carrie Hanson was to collaborate with drummer-composer Tim Daisy and many of the top improv-jazz musicians in Chicago. They were the perfect match for The Seldoms. Their approaches to music, while varied, often share in the goal of intensifying the everyday moment through a combination of ecstatic virtuosity and focused mindfulness. They too use demystification (of formal style, of instrumentation, of harmonic logic, of rhythmic norms) to enchant direct experience, to call attention to the very air in which the music exists in the now.

This was on display when trumpeter Jamie Branch deconstructed a trumpet solo into a series of rapid fire spits and breaths, with bassoonist Katherine Young offering quick, appreciative responses. Accompanying the dance located backstage, they played as the audience was encouraged to position themselves with our backs to the musicians, facing the dancers. Between sound and motion, we were performing for the performers as much as they for us. For a moment, behind the ropes and pulleys of the stage drapes, everyone was part of the show.

Which turned out not to be a show at all, but something at once more quotidian and more rare, something that was not possible to put into words but was exactly what we wished to say. As we listened and watched together, uncertain of our places, awkwardly crowded together beneath the scaffolding, the curtain was lifted on the relationship between negation and affirmation. “This is not” echoed around the rafters, singing its absence, until it folded around itself a million times and became a kind of yes, a sense of undeniable presence that leapt forth and fell away all at once. It was such a small thing, a little moment. We looked at the air where the bodies and notes had been, under the spotlights, and they were gone. But still there too. Where we were ourselves.

There was nothing left to do but nod at each other, bow to the dancers and musicians, and applaud. Bingo. We all knew we had witnessed something remarkable, achieved seldomly.

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