Beyond Sheer Shearer

kristina isabelle dance company, sybil shearer: maker of the past, muse of the present @ newberry library, 11 November 2015.

sybil shearer kristina isabelle

If choreography knows something, it is that an archive does not store: it acts. And its actions take place primarily by delimiting zones of temporality and rhythms of presence—just as choreography must.

— André Lepecki

At a key moment in And the Spirit Moved Me, Kristina Isabelle Dance Company’s work-in-progress inspired by Chicago modern dance pioneer Sybil Shearer, choreographer and dancer Isabelle takes a solo. Her movements quicken in a sequence of slashing gestures, hands raised above her head, her backbone slipping and straightening, her arms pulsating and pumping, her body jerking up and down. It is almost violent, yet under control, and looked as if it could have come from the contemporary world of popular dance as much as anything from the archive of Shearer’s work. And yet, it also contained elements of Shearer’s own interest in quick, twitchy movement blended into more balletic, flowing structures. It was a page ripped out of the archives, blasted into the present; it was a citation of the past reconfigured into a propulsive announcement of something new; it was a glimmer exploding.

This was just a small, but remarkable moment during  “Sybil Shearer: Maverick of the Past, Muse of the Present,” a program that highlighted a new effort underway by the Newberry Library and partners to document and celebrate Chicago dance history (full disclosure: I am involved with this project as a digital consultant to the Chicago Dance History Project).

Along with a roundtable and their own work-in-progress, Isabelle and her company restaged two Shearer works: O Lost (1942) and Judgment Seeks Its Own Level (1969). The latter was a fabulously goofy, leaping, pop-top ensemble piece performed in superhero-like costumes to, of all things, Iron Butterfly’s ridiculous proto-heavy metal song “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (who would ever want to miss any chance to hear that tune!). In between performances, Isabelle and members of the Morrison-Shearer Foundation Board of Trustees screened a mini-documentary by Octane Rich Media titled Searching for Sybil.

In the film, Isabelle remarked that she and dancers enjoyed working in Shearer’s studios in Northbrook, Illinois because it allowed them to begin “archiving her into our bodies.” One saw this archiving on display in the solo within And the Spirit Moved Me. At one level, it was a moment of intersection between Isabelle’s already well-developed style and Shearer’s signature choreography. One saw where they met. And yet it was also a moment when one realizes that no dancing is ever a reproduction or recreation of movement: the borrowing was also a departure, a commentary on Shearer, a connecting of her history to other energies toward which Isabelle moved.

When Isabelle took her solo, for a moment I saw the famous footage of Shearer (filmed by her collaborator Helen Morrison) dancing outdoors in Northbrook, echoing the movement of wind through grass. Then that was gone, replaced in rapid succession by something more pop and current. It was as if, flickering across Isabelle’s body, Shearer had arisen from the grave for an evening out on the town visiting the dance floors of the latest hot contemporary nightclubs. Then Isabelle’s own style arose for a moment. Then something from classic Shearer. And so on, in quick succession.

What was dazzling about the solo was the rifling together of all these references. With each move, history got reindexed. Movement, its pure forms, and its potential referents were all lined up and then sorted through in the bend of a backbone, the tilt of a chin, the raising and lowering of hands, the lifting of feet, the intensity of motion that yanked the past into the present or the present into the past, jarringly, edging them together without insisting on the transitions being smooth or even entirely legible.

Isabelle’s performance suggested that, as Andrè Lepecki and others have noted, archival dancing is never just a recovering of something old; it is also and perhaps more importantly almost always an uncovering of something new; and most of all, it is a discovering of how old and new unceasingly criss-cross each other without regard for orderly direction or procedure.

In the disordering and reordering of archive and repertoire, to borrow Diana Taylor’s famous terms, something more than either of those concepts appeared. They were necessary structures, to be sure, but in the moment of Isabelle’s solo something singular erupted from them in all its glory: an animating vitality that neither repository nor repertory could quite contain.

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