“How do I invite you to make sure you’re comfortable in here?” said Deborah Hay, “What is the language I need to find?” As though inviting us into a tea party without quite enough chairs, the petite, yet somehow stoic Hay – a legendary choreographer and author who came of age in the Judson Dance Theatre and has since been the subject of many a college dance major’s essay – smiles demurely at a group of 20 eager guests in chairs strewn about her performance space. As her solo began, I reflected on Hay’s initial statements about “My Choreographed Body,” a 30-minute dance with a break in the middle. “This body has been choreographed by the world,” she said, and this dance is an effort to eliminate and unlearn all that had been learned.
The result, however, was not a complete departure from what I assume is traditional dance training. I took a yoga class one time and the guided mediation didn’t instruct us to “clear our minds,” or “eliminate distractions,” but to address and acknowledge our thoughts and then let them fade away. Perhaps this was Deborah Hay’s approach to this solo, unlearning all she had learned by acknowledgement rather than abandonment. Balletic postures and elegant epaulement appeared, were acknowledged, and then given permission to fade away into more contorted shapes. The room felt hyper-charged, with only the sounds of the city, bleed from the music concert next door and the scratching of my pen as accompaniment to what felt like a significant moment in dance.
Significant, perhaps for the appearance of Deborah Hay alone, but the gathering of artists on the roster at the aMID Festival (through January 31 at Links Hall) is exciting almost to the point of disbelief. It’s as though festival curator Michelle Kranicke (who also performed with her company, Zephyr Dance) made a wish list of who’s who among mature performers in the dance community, waved a wand, and somehow convinced them all to say yes.
Bob Eisen, who co-founded Links Hall with Carol Bobrow and Charlie Vernon in 1978 as an artists’ co-operative, returned to Chicago for aMID with “zulpez” a duet that has enjoyed several iterations in Russia, Minneapolis, and New York. “zulpez” wouldn’t be a Bob Eisen dance if there weren’t a few surprises; without dropping any spoilers, numerous costume changes, dancer Kevin Fay’s impressive split, and Eisen’s fantastic “hey kid, get off my lawn” persona are an indication that aMID addresses serious subject in not-so-serious ways.
Where Eisen’s duet comes across as just silly (in a good way), Cynthia Oliver and Leslie Cuyjet’s “BOOM!” is a laugh out loud statement piece examining “the conditions of the two performing black women when life happens” (program notes). Abundant references to body shape, female sexuality, and relationships come together through hilarious gestures, highly physical dance phrases, and a poignant monologue spoken by both women simultaneously. Though tempted throughout to view “BOOM!” as an uplifting girl-power piece, the mood darkens at the end as references to freedom, or lack there-of, are accompanied by suffocating chest thrusts, silencing the once strong and sensational duo.
Dance follows trends like any creative pursuit. Like skinny jeans and asymmetrical hairdos, what once seemed risky or unconventional eventually becomes the norm. Yet, many of the gestures and movements on this program were new to me, perhaps because they come from stories that aren’t being told. By inviting older dancers to the forefront and widening perceptions of what and who is a dancer, our conversations become deeper, our understanding wiser, our repertoire more expansive.
Stars of dance aside, this is Michelle Kranicke’s moment. Her idea for the festival stemmed from a personal commitment to continue performing, and a desire to engage with others who have similarly adapted their aesthetics as they’ve aged. It’s an investigation and a conversation that have changed the trajectory of Kranicke’s work and career in a big way, and brought us a series of concerts that are not about aging – they’re just really good.
The aMID Festival continues through Jan. 31 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western. Deborah Hay, Bob Eisen and Cynthia Oliver appear through Sunday; next weekend features an entirely different concert including Zephyr Dance with Bebe Miller, Sheldon Smith & Lisa Wymore, and Pranita Jain.