CHICAGO — Walking into Studio A at Links Hall on Saturday night, the room seemed not quite ready. An orange A-frame ladder remained out near the upstage wall, extension cords strewn about, while a man and a woman in identical outfits played heads or tails with a somewhat awkward nonchalance.
There’s a lot to look at: in addition to the ladder, extension cords and squatters in the corner there’s a perimeter of copper tape on the floor, accompanied by little circuit boxes and battery packs, mostly on the stage right edge, and an old fashioned looking wooden caboodle set near center. And then, holy s*%@! There’s a girl in the rafters.
Christine Shallenberg is small in stature, but her presence takes up a lot of space. When audience members realize that we’re being stared at from above, it’s unsettling. In truth, there are few moments in her work, To the Ground, that aren’t unsettling. Presented by Links Hall as one of two new works culminating from a six month residency and mentorship program, the longstanding gem of a program called LinkUP, To the Ground is a little bit dance, a little bit performance art, a little bit theatrical jazz, a little bit mad physicist, and a lot bit weird.
I wouldn’t expect any less from a recent grad of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), which she is, but Christine Shallenberg has serious cred. The epitome of multi-disciplinary, Shallenberg spent five years as the lighting director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and was nominated for a Bessie for lighting design while simultaneously pursuing her own agenda in multi-media arts installations and performances in NYC.
LinkUP has put her on the radar of the dance community in Chicago, introducing many of us to her for the first time. Perhaps that’s why To the Ground feels so cluttered with ideas, as though Shallenberg is trying to give us an elephant in a tiny box – perhaps not. The copper tape triggers flashings of light, and a charged hum fills the space once the tape is attached to the circuit boxes’ mini jumper cables. By some feat of engineering that I can’t understand, the circuit boxes amplify the ground, on which repeated stompings shake audience members to their core. There’s text about murky marshes, and the fairground that used to be across the street, and the pending destruction of the viaduct which served as a namesake for Links Hall’s previous tenant. There’s singing, and references to marathon races, and falling, and talk about what it means to be grounded. We then are asked to pack up and move outside for a finale under the viaduct.
In short, it’s all a bit “too many notes.” My will was urging Shallenberg to show a little restraint, so we could dwell on the moments that resonated most… like the one where she wields a garden spade and makes a pile of dirt and debris under the viaduct, rolling and writhing in it, resuscitating the ground, and revealing a previously unseen capacity for Dance (capital D).
On the other hand, isn’t that what LinkUP is all about? It’s an opportunity to lay it all out there and take risks, to try everything, experiment, and play. All those things. And yet, watching To the Ground still made me squirm, as did the second hour of the showcase presented by The Impossible! Collective, a butoh-inspired piece called flower-storm-ghost-wind.
Three grubby jazz musicians and a man all in pastel pink wearing a grapefruit belt. This is the Impossible! Collective, and yet, all its members lead double lives as “regular people.” From the press release:
Kurt Preston is a computer programmer and kung fu black belt, Jajah Wu is a children’s rights lawyer moonlighting as a sideshow violinist/opera singer, and Stan Vilensky is a biologist, drummer, and tinkerer–the three have made art together since high school. In 2009, they conscripted Eli Halpern, a poet and business tycoon, to form a band.
As their alter egos within The Impossible! Collective, each regular joe (or jane) is free to be truly weird, and flower-storm-ghost-wind is a quite beautiful rhapsody that draws clear influence from dark butoh, but really mingles butoh the form with butoh the philosophy. flower-storm-ghost-wind shows less patience then I anticipated, and comes to a gratifying head with a full on High Noon-style brawl between bassist Kurt Preston and the grapefruit adorned Eli Halpern.
There’s something so raw and primitive and discustingly uncomfortable about both of these works, and that’s probably the point. I mean, this is performance art, after all. But pie starts losing its flavor after the fifth piece, and the climaxes of both pieces, happening some 45+ minutes after they began, were perhaps less impactful than they could have been. Given a few more months and some editing, though, the salient moments of To the Ground and flower-storm-ghost-wind are likely to be better than pie.
And I really like pie.