I’ve heard stories about Sheldon B. Smith and Lisa Wymore for years now — each one makes me wish I had had the opportunity to get to know them during their Chicago days. The show they shared with Lucky Plush Productions at Link’s Hall last weekend made me wish I knew them even more, because they’re versatile, mysterious performers and because parts of the program relied upon a familiarity with their work I simply don’t have.
A quartet of works by various combinations of Julia Rhoads’ Lucky Plush and Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts, In the Middle, Somewhat Replicated was rock-solid on the conceptual-consistency front. The incorporation of live video played an integral role throughout, all but one of the pieces requiring a camera and tripod to stand downstage center surrounded by an assortment of Apple hardware and other tech toys. Surprisingly, the ubiquity of video in daily life didn’t make a yawn out of its heavy use by Plush and Smith/Wymore. It helps that Rhoads has stuck with the format for a few years; although her longtime multimedia collaborator John Boesche wasn’t involved this time around, effective incorporation of projections is by now easily achieved by Rhoads and the ensemble (they’re all comfortable, nuanced pros on camera, too).
Smith and Wymore’s collaboration Witness, which opened the show, took a different tack with the screen. A “duet” of sorts, it begins with Smith watching Wymore perform a gestural, internally-motivated solo in a black-and-white recording that fills the back wall of the space and is scaled such that the floor looks as though it carries through, creating a tricky and satisfying Pleasantville effect. Wymore is often motionless or cycling through some small repetitions as though looking for an initiation that feels honest. A few bursts of percussive energy break the tension, but it regenerates swiftly like Wolverine’s turbo-healing skin — she finishes and it’s hard to discern whether anything has happened at all. Then, in the first hint of a comedic strain that’s par for the Lucky Plush course, Wymore (still on video) debriefs with Smith, engaging in a back-and-forth about how the dance felt that’s not so much illuminating information but another layer of meta-engagement. Neither seem able to squeeze out a complete sentence or generate a firm statement. The pair then swap places, the real Wymore entering the room to watch Smith perform his own, similar solo dance, which upon its finish is also dismantled by compulsive verbal unpacking. Witness describes itself in a series of questions as being about subjectivity, but it may even more be about language. It recalls what Molly Jaeger‘s been working on — there’s a jarring interplay between the simplicity of seeing movement that needs no explanation and the annoying dust storm that buries that simplicity under descriptive language, working its way into every crevice and staying there forever.
Asynchronous Love Scene (from One Life to Live) Version 1.0, Smith and Wymore’s other exclusive contribution, is a simple gag that retains its humor even as it becomes increasingly predictable. The setup — what if, on a single-camera shoot, the camera had to stay in one place and everything else on set had to move in relation to it? — takes the conceit of filmmaking and lampoons it while at the same time taking the audience (we can’t move, either) on a proxy joyride. A Looney Tunes version of Handel plays over Smith and Wymore frantically keeping pace with a series of chimes that tells them when the tape is rolling. They have to be in place for each two-to-three-second shot while also wrangling three pieces of furniture, a bottle of wine and two glasses; they’re also simultaneously throwing costume pieces and other props around in an admirable stab at continuity. Although the “shots” are filmed in no logical order, the simple story — a couple on a date down a bottle of vino, rip each others’ clothes off and make comically passionate love — is readily apparent and funny because rather than in spite of its obviousness. The real stunner is that Smith and Wymore have their hands on a piece of software that, once this zany parade ends, properly sequences the footage from this first section, throws a more traditional arrangement of the same score behind it, and instantly spits out a complete movie (called A Short Film About Getting Drunk and Fucking, which we all promptly watch together).
Appearing Acts is a play on Smith and Wymore’s company’s name as sure as the evening’s name is a reference to William Forsythe’s 1987 masterpiece in the middle, somewhat elevated. Built out of what the program describes as re-contextualized samples of choreography by Smith and/or Wymore that the Lucky Plush ensemble recalled from memory or learned from online video, it’s clear that the Bay Area duo’s body of work has had a profound influence not just on Rhoads but visibly upon Chicago contemporary dance as a whole. My obstacle was, as I suspect some other audience members shared, I wasn’t familiar with the source material at all. Many of the vignettes, which were composed to flow into and out of one another in montage, were interesting (it’s doubtful they’d be so honored if they weren’t), but Appearing Acts told me little about the dialogue these artists share and how this particular sort of homage honors the mutual intellectual engagement they’ve maintained over the years. One bit, the speedy run-through of Beckett’s 1965 dramaticule Come and Go with which Rhoads opens 2003’s Endplay, provided a few belly laughs as the characters’ names were here changed to Julia, Sheldon and Lisa, but I think it’s just because this sacrilegiously quick performance of the Beckett is always funny. I appreciate good-natured work and I think Rhoads made Acts mostly out of happiness at the occasion of this reunion, but on the rest of the program, also good-natured and very funny, that happiness had already registered.
True Value, another premiere and joint venture between Rhoads, Smith and Wymore, is a better example of Rhoads’ recent investigations and increasingly-pointed pursuit of contemporary dance theater that looks head-on at authenticity, appropriation and commercialization in Internet culture. Members of the Lucky Plush ensemble sit in the house as lights come up and “bid” on small shifts in Rhoads’ posture, facial expression and projected mood. Some stances elicit a bored “two dollars” while other, flashier arrangments (including Smith and Wymore, who enter the picture) garner an excited “twelve bucks” or even “fifteen-fifty.” There’s a fluid slipping into subsequent scenes, one of which involves close-up TV-confessional-style stories told by performers to the camera and projected on the wall; interrupting each other and causing the narrative to leapfrog over itself, the simple tale turns into a three-legged race that defeats its own purpose and collapses inward. The movement vocabulary extrapolates a shared collage that developed between Chicago and Berkeley in videos passed back and forth online — it’s rapidly-shifting dynamics and logic structures are a natural fit with Lucky Plush’s other collaboratively-generated vocabularies. Lia Bonfilio, Asimina Chremos, Autumn Eckman, Kim Larimore Goldman and Meghann Wilkinson are some of Chicago’s most versatile and creative dancers and each has grown immensely with the challenging tasks Rhoads introduces to the creative process. Text-based scenes — often essentially straight theater, which dancers can seriously butcher — carry heavy loads of self-reference, satire and irony to the summit of their dramatic potential and dump it all at the top for a celebratory get-down.