The older dancer-choreographers on the aMID Festival’s first program were clearly there to have fun. Serious fun. One performer appeared completely nude; another set the audience seats randomly onstage, facing here and there. A third danced with a giant roll of paper, and two others entered the stage from a far corner of the audience, arguing all the way.
That sense of adventure wasn’t surprising; postmodern dance has been these choreographers’ bread and butter. Through Jan. 31 at Links Hall, the festival is intended to radically redefine expertise. And Judson Church artist Deborah Hay did that in spades, revealing the subtle but stunning results of 50 years of training to look untrained, a Judson specialty.
With her leonine head and small body, her beautiful hands and renegade feet, placed every which way, Hay unites opposing forces in her premiere, “My Choreographed Body.” Vaguely Eastern in the sustained flow of its elegant first half, the solo turns quicker, more assertive, even humorous, in the second, when Hay comes to seem a sort of Pierrot. Stopping within inches of my midstage chair, she became visible to me only from ribcage to hip, in an isolated, breathtaking curve. Silent except for the occasional soft sounds of her feet and, later, her singing and guttural mutterings, Hay is a mesmerizing paradox of control and its loss.
Festival curator Michelle Kranicke offered “Study #1 — The Body in Relation to Object,” which she performed with two of her Zephyr dancers. An “investigation” for a longer piece to come, this trio clearly separates Kranicke, whose task is to unscroll a huge roll of paper, from the younger performers: They seem insentient, oblivious, subject to wayward impulses, while a mysterious intention drives Kranicke. Though a program note suggests she’d like the audience to wander amid the performers, no one moved from their seats; perhaps a more immersive experience would have made the piece less severe.
The program’s closing duets both suggest one older and one younger twin. Lanky Bob Eisen, a longtime Chicagoan now spending half his time in New York and half in Russia, has found his decades-younger doppelganger in Kevin Fay. In typical Eisen fashion, “Zulpez” (2015) is littered with feats — dumb but hard feats, awkwardly performed, like extending a leg to the side, grabbing the toes and hopping. Questioning the nature of dance technique and creating a subtext of competition, Eisen contrasts a quirkily humorous tone with dark, moving moments, as when Fay enfolds his naked body or literally leaves him in the dark.
If the subject of age seems central to Eisen and Hay, it comes across as peripheral for Kranicke and Cynthia Oliver. A professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Oliver worked with former student Leslie Cuyjet to create the text and sometimes booty-shaking choreography of the hugely entertaining “BOOM!” (2012). Conflict pervades the piece — even their approach to it is conflicted, in the half-humorous, all-out combative African-American way, which they suggest might be driven by mother-daughter relations.
Oliver and Cuyjet’s mastery of emotional tone ensures a complex experience, by turns ominous, sad, funny. And at the end, with a deft mention of freedom, “BOOM!” becomes political: The “freedom” of African-Americans is conflicted, incomplete, laced with tragedy.