The Seldoms and music ensemble ICE go spelunking in the Athenaeum Theatre.
Dancer-choreographer Carrie Hanson, artistic director of Chicago-based dance and performance group the Seldoms, is a virtuoso of meticulous composition. Her clear-edged, challenging dances emit the same bracing air of modernity as anything you’d hear at a concert of new music. The Seldoms have recently hooked up with the Chicago chapter of the chamber-music group International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and it promises to be an ideal partnership. The two groups join forces in Three Shades of Dark, a new collaborative effort premiering at the Athenaeum Theatre Friday 16 on a program with two other works.
Danced by Hanson and Seldoms dancers Jen Grisham, Christina Gonzalez-Gillett and Amanda McAlister, with live music performed by ICE musicians Claire Chase and David Schotzko, Shades is full of strange, harrowing imagery. Bodies are piled together with arms and legs protruding; dancers grab each other by the jaw; fingers claw into wide-open mouths. During one section, Chase’s flute notes pierce a sonic wall of prerecorded screaming by a huge group of children in Poison Mushroom by composer Dai Fujikura—a piece responding to the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In this, their first collaboration, ICE and the Seldoms have discovered a mutual affinity for powerful images dredged up from the gloomy mines of experience and imagination.
Hanson has been gestating ideas about the aesthetic, psychological and physical implications of darkness for several years. In 2000, while in graduate school at the Laban Centre in London, she was doing research for a paper on Butoh dance when she came across and was inspired by the seminal essay In Praise of Shadows by Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. More recently, while making a site visit at the Athenaeum Theatre with lighting designer Margaret Nelson, Hanson noted the orchestra pit and imagined staging subterranean choreography in that black space while projecting a live video feed onto the stage so the audience could see it.
In an early planning meeting for Shades, Schotzko of ICE responded to Hanson’s ideas by doing a demonstration of Vinko Globokar’s 1985 ?Corporel (on Hanson’s kitchen floor, no less).The score calls for the musician to pound his own body to produce sound, and has been cited by one critic as a tribute to victims of torture. “He started making these scary sounds and pulling on his face,” says Hanson, laughing, then adding more seriously: “It’s a very physical piece, driving sounds from the body.”
In Shades, you’ll see Schotzko perform ?Corporel as accompaniment to part of the dance. The four dancers wear long, flexible plastic tails, which Hanson says help to convey her notion of another, darker world. “I don’t want us to be normal human beings,” she says, “but I don’t want us to be just creatures, either.”
If this all sounds grim and harsh—maybe even suggesting a whiff of bad performance art—be assured that the intellectually adventuresome, whistle-clean aesthetic shared by ICE and the Seldoms wrings an odd beauty from the grotesquerie of these images.
In particular, the choreography conjures a regression to benign, primal, sightless states. The sensuous articulation of the dancers at times suggests a pile of baby kittens or junior lizards at play as much as it does agonized human victims of catastrophe. Splayed hands and soles of feet awkwardly upturned seem to be deformed, or maybe reaching for light. Paradoxically, ambiguity is clearly rendered: It’s like seeing in the dark.
ICE and the Seldoms perform at the Athenaeum Theatre Friday 16 and Saturday 17.