Steadily and without preciousness, the choreographers involved with The Seldoms’ 3×3 each took the vastness of the Dance Center stage this weekend and owned it. Darrell Jones’ Whiff of Anarchy set two tones–smooth athleticism and a pronounced darkness–for the evening as its opening work. The stage’s four-digit square footage was left mostly bare, save two setpieces by Grant Sabin splitting center upstage: Piles of television sets with flat wings suggesting the city. The tube sets displayed mostly static during the work’s opening, gradually folding in images and video of protest, riot and civil unrest as the piece progressed. I liked Jones’ explicit invocation of the urban as a unique set of conditions; it’s a work about people who live in cities and, as an urbanophile myself, I responded to Jones’ taking for granted that we all understood that Whiff wasn’t about small-town America and why don’t we just get that out of the way and do this thing. The costumes (dancers’ own garments with consultation by the inimitable Jeff Hancock) and styling (dramatic, spiky updos and kohl-rimmed eyes) reminded me of Anne-Marie Veevaete’s designs for Crystal Pite (a good thing), a précis in costume and movement of the gritty drama from his most recent piece, 2007′s excellent third swan from the end. The dancers move as a group, as a herd, even when split in two facing lines or sorted by gender and staring each other down–Jones creates and dissolves compositional elements with variety and skill. There’s a sparse vocal layer running atop Whiff that never really breaks into language; they hiss and yell at the room, at no one in particular, at one point growling “ffffff-k YOU” with considerable effort. It combines with the vocabulary, this work’s strongest component, to impart a sense of frustration and blockage. Jones seems to be suggesting that the riot mentality, or submission to the violent impulse, is not a release of energy but rather the result of its imprisonment.
I appreciated the control Jones has over tone–each subsection is a slight pull away or toward the ones that bracket it, and his ability to move the entirety of the work, and cast of seven, around tonal space with the precision of a surgeon is impressive. As with third swan, he prefers a DJ’s compositional touch to a composer’s, and Whiff stays in the custody of Franco De Leon throughout, whose selections (DJ Qbert, Jaylib, OH NO and Youngblood Brass Band) recalled DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…... As he can as a performer, Jones brings the dance’s vocabulary into and out of acrobatic trickery with real style and no-big-deal panache, the body mechanics unpredictable in sequence but essentially informal. I think Jones and Peter Carpenter are notable in Chicago for having found a unique language that feels considered and complete despite their employment of the generative skills of the ensemble. This approach calls upon the same part of the brain as a DJ’s trade does, in fact, and like in music, well done is well done. No choreographer is automatically handicapped for not having invented all of their works’ material. The dancers were amply flattered by Whiff‘s content and Jones’ direction, especially Seldoms newcomers Daniel Gibson, Damon Green, Todd Rhoades and Jackie Stewart. The women (including Seldoms director Carrie Hanson) comprised a powerhouse quartet.
Hanson showed two works for the evening, 2007′s Overflow and Thrift, a world-premiere duet for herself and Paige Cunningham. It being The Seldoms’ first presentation of commissioned choreography, the programming was strong: Hanson put her two pieces together and in the middle, separated by an intermission, with Liz Burritt’s Triggers closing. I sensed a collective pride in the company and its work. It’s justified.
Thrift has Hanson and Cunningham in often unision. The work opens with them in individual channels of light (Julie Ballard was rocking the grid as usual) executing dense material backward to their path as a Paul Krugman lecture (“The Financial Meltdown and the Future of American Politics”) plays in a recording to a crowded house. The work opens with this shadow audience’s applause, quickly deflated by Krugman’s straight-talking breakdown of the shitstorm of these times. Cunningham and Hanson share little in the way of physicality or inherent qualities but this material (Hanson’s) works on them both, not least because they are two phenomenally talented performers and a joy to watch. The work is serious and clear-eyed. Ballard and Hanson made theatrical sculpture out of the venue, running the wings and travelers along their tracks by hand and slowly pulling a rail of lights up off the floor upstage. As people who work at the Dance Center day in and day out, they know the theater well. Their simple acknowledgement/sexy exploitation of this fact was a nice touch.
Triggers, by Liz Burritt, shows the influential hand of the Joe Goode Performance Group, no surprise as she was a founding member. I actually liked this dance more than the work of Goode’s I’ve seen (Stay Together, a men’s duet whose name I don’t recall, and Deeply There) for being less eager. It’s a bit of nightmare family dinner blown out into jagged, unrelated chunks that float by and play out like some cosmic, vacant ritual. I mean vacant in a good way: The empty frustration the eight dancers seem to feel for one another seems worn in by habit, and their refusal to show any representation of “moving on” suggested for me that they’ve taken a hard look at the situation and decided they didn’t think trying to change it would likely be worth it. It’s often funny, or funny-strange, and the company members involved all attacked its challenges with gusto. Cara Sabin, as in the rest of the program, was outstanding.
The afterparty allowed a closer look at the designs of three Seldoms costume designers: Anke Loh (Thrift), Abigail Glaum-Lathbury (Overflow) and Lara Miller (Triggers). I didn’t have a great view of the runway, but I thought Loh’s graphic screenprint (blown-up combs with interlocked teeth) dresses were gorgeous and Miller’s frocks flattered by cut and by style. A great party was lubricated further by delicious, locally-made organic Prairie Vodka (great for greyhounds). Props to all.