Live review | River North Dance Chicago: Fall 2011 Engagement
This article was updated for clarity on November 13, 2011; details are appended below.
The mythology of choreographer Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down (1989) is as interesting as the brief, punishing piece itself. I heard most of it in my early twenties in the studio with Ezralow, as an understudy for the “purple pants” role while at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. I heard a lot of the story again on October 3 at the Fine Arts Building, at a sneak preview for River North Dance Chicago’s new production of the work, which premiered on November 4 . (There are six other dances on RivNo’s fine fall bill, most of which .)
Here’s the story that I know: With some money to spend and having seen and been struck by in the middle, somewhat elevated—which, incidentally, the Joffrey Ballet will perform in February—Ezralow commissioned an original piece of music by middle’s composer, Thom Willems. Middle (1987) is far from melodically complex; its power is in its then-novel electronic sounds, its machinelike rhythms and an icy, combative abrasiveness, tempered by haunting, quiet interludes. But Willems’s score for SUPER STRAIGHT is even more pared-down: Its motif is simply one note, repeated on the one, three, four and five of each eight-count phrase. In place of haunting, quiet interludes based on this motif, SUPER STRAIGHT has a hurricane’s eye of total silence.
Ezralow initially thought that Willems had shorted him on their agreed-upon length for the score. Willems told Ezralow to listen to the recording again, and to let it keep playing even after everything went quiet. There was more music. (Again, this is the story that I heard.) By hand, on paper, Ezralow mapped out the entire recording using a different type of squiggly line for each type of sound. This map, which he showed me, looks something like a seismograph, with a big hole of blank about two-thirds of the way through.
SUPER STRAIGHT was created concurrently with another piece, which called for most of Hubbard’s dancers. Ezralow got four company members “left over” and a fifth dancer, Alberto Arias, who went back and forth. (Arias originated the “purple pants” part; this double-booking for rehearsals is why the role has an “odd-man-out” quality.)
Ezralow had seen and been struck by Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” series of large-scale charcoal drawings, created in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Jackson Lowell created costumes for the quintet which almost exactly match the clothes worn by some of Longo’s figures. One woman sports a purple skirt and white blouse, tucked in. The other wears a black, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress and both wear heels. One man wears an olive suit, shirt and tie; one man doesn’t have a jacket. The third man wears glasses and all three men wear dress shoes not made to be danced in.
The movement suggested by Longo’s drawings is not formal, dancerly stuff. His figures’ contortions look involuntary and extreme, as if they’re dodging bullets, or writhing underwater, trying not to drown. In the studio, Ezralow threw tennis balls at the dancers, asking them to remember and repeat their reactions. This grew into the unique movement vocabulary seen in SUPER STRAIGHT.
Combined with Willems’s relentless, repeating
boom-[rest]-boom-boom-boom-[six, seven, eight]
these codified physical spasms, organized into more-or-less-conventional contemporary-dance structures, make memorable theater. The work’s original cast (Arias, RNDC artistic director Frank Chaves*, Sandi Cooksey, Ron De Jesús and Lynn Sheppard) was so physically strong and so incredibly driven that Ezralow set in choreographic stone certain moments that few dancers since have been able to do justice. This cast at RNDC—Michael Gross, Lauren Kias, Tucker Knox, Ahmad Simmons and Jessica Wolfrum—put forth admirable effort, but on opening night the piece stayed just out of reach.
SUPER STRAIGHT is, and always has been, an injury factory. People watching it gasp, imagining the dancers’ pain. Ezralow captured the energy of Longo’s drawings, without diluting their power, by creating a set of tasks that push the body to extremes. We watch this small tribe execute his instructions, soldiering on past fatigue for the sake of accomplishment and completion. Many roles in dance are torture chambers, but few are as transparent about it as these five are.
While they performed SUPER STRAIGHT, I saw looks on my colleagues’ faces that I never saw under any other circumstances. Its demands trigger a hardened stare, clenched jaw and sometimes tears. It’s a bitch; so is life.
*As first published, this review implied that Frank Chaves was cast from the start in Daniel Ezralow’s SUPER STRAIGHT is coming down. Chaves did perform the work’s world premiere, but in place of another dancer, Geoff Myers, who originated and rehearsed the role and was injured just days before.