The Seldoms with WCdance of Taiwan – review

The Seldoms with WCdance
By Laura Molzahn

The Seldoms’ joint concert with Taiwan-based WCdance takes place at the intersection of Nature and Civilization. But the balance, the equation, is weighted differently for each of the three surprisingly polished works on the program.

WCdance artistic director WenChung Lin and his six performers arrived in Chicago on June 3. Allow a few days for major-league jet lag, and the two companies probably had only about three weeks to work together. Yet Lin managed to set a new piece on the Seldoms, and Seldoms artistic director Carrie Hanson set a new section of her work in progress, “Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead,” on Lin’s dancers. The results, showing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through Sunday, have amazing coherence and force.

Lin told me at a rehearsal that his older piece on this program — the sextet “Small River (Reversed),” performed here by his dancers — is based on a traditional Chinese folk dance. But of course even a work devoted to the natural phenomenon of a river is a human construct; after all, Lin had to sculpt people into plausible watery forms. Early on, the movements are a smooth pedestrian flow, simply walking in a circle or walking bent over at the waist, hands clasped. I imagined these to be traditional moves, and imagined how, magnified by dozens of performers in rippling costumes, they might capture the flow of a river.

But Lin’s “Small” series, of which this is a part, aims small. That’s a challenge that he largely overcomes. Using the stage as a stand-in for the land surrounding and restricting a river, he makes the “water” — his dancers — rush and roil as we go further downstream. Washing back and forth, they change direction constantly and leap, spin, and descend. Lin, a former Bill T. Jones dancer, has a strong sense of composition; these six performers sometimes seem a dozen. But the gradual evolution from one section of the river to another may be slow for Western audiences. And, despite the title, I’m not sure I would have seen that Lin reversed the river in the second half if he hadn’t told me.

Maybe Lin went to Oak Street beach before creating “Otaku’s Beach” for the six Seldoms. Here civilization more openly intrudes on nature, as the dancers flip beach towels onto the floor, then dive onto the little islands they’ve claimed, miniature outposts of a personal civilization. But, wearing the briefest of nudie underclothing, they also represent the state of nature. The dancers’ squirminess, snatching the towels up to cover themselves in numerous ways, suggests their discomfort at this man-made place hovering painfully between our animal natures and self-consciousness.

Lin and Hanson didn’t collaborate at all on the new pieces. Yet somehow Hanson’s sense of theater, and particularly her sense of humor, has rubbed off on “Otaku’s Beach.” (The term “otaku,” by the way, in Japan means “geek,” while in Western cultures it’s reserved for obsessive fans of anime and manga.) A humorous, almost satirical undercurrent burbles beneath the piece, particularly in Phillip Elson’s sly opening solo, when he coyly names and indicates body parts in some foreign language. Even the more serious later duets, which seem to dive below the surface of a beach scene, enhance the sense of theater. Like “Small River (Reversed),” this piece seemed a bit long. But that may be the Western attention span talking.

Open warfare between nature and civilization is the subject of Hanson’s evening-length “Exit Disclaimer” (whose complete version arrives at the Dance Center in October). Though her starting point for this piece was Thomas Friedman’s book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” she came to think, with the input of several environmental specialists, that his view was naïvely optimistic, especially in light of the 2008 economic collapse. At this point her focus has shifted to our arcane, vitriolic “scientific” dialogue on the environment, on which reasonable, and unreasonable, people can definitely disagree.

The Seldoms performed the first “Exit Disclaimer” excerpts on this program. These reveal Hanson’s usual expert mix of somber, precisely calibrated and evocative abstract movement (such as an initially heroic, steadily devolving copycat sequence) with humorous dance theater (prying dancers’ feet up from the floor with a spatula, like over-fried eggs from a pan). The new section, set on the WC dancers, is similar. Let’s just say that ingeniously employed Lazy Susans, snow globes, blowing fans, bananas, and frosted doughnuts help suggest the Mad Hatter’s “clean cup, move down” approach, which some lucky folks have been able to adopt in response to climate change. I can’t wait to see the full piece.