filthy/mockingbird Plays with Meaning, Interpretation, and a Pile of Clothing (review)

“When the viewer doesn’t “get it”, we treat the subjectivity of art as an imperfection in communication that we must accept… In life we make our own meaning. We take the chaotic interconnectedness and construct a narrative for ourselves. This work will reflect the non-linear multiplicity life, on which meaning can be created by each person.”

This is Mikey Rioux’s mission in his production this weekend at Links Hall. Nestled midway through the fall danceapolooza, filthy/mockingbird provides a welcome break from the big name, big company, big venue shows that have littered the month of October. Rioux invites the viewer to derive meaning from a dance that is constructed in the moment through a chance device written with colored marker on a piece of white vinyl in Links’ beautiful Studio A.  John Holt’s white angular structures recessed from the back wall created depth, texture, and an offstage in the otherwise stark space; however, the addition of white marley over the light maple floor was superfluous and ultimately created a barrier between the performers and audience that served against Rioux’s invitation to participate in the work.


Dancers Ben Law and Danielle Hammer (background), and Mikey Rioux and Kaitlin Webster (foreground) in fiflthy/mockingbird. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis
Dancers Ben Law and Danielle Hammer (background), and Mikey Rioux and Kaitlin Webster (foreground) in filthy/mockingbird. Photo by Matthew Gregory Hollis

Art for art’s sake is well and good, and there is A LOT of eye candy in filthy/mockingbird. Singularly, all the elements were beautiful, but where filthy/mockingbird fell short was in its failure to derive any sort of relationship between sound, video, set, lights, and the movers onstage.  The performers appeared uninfluenced by anything around them, including each other and the audience.  A series of “resets” in which they pick new operant words from the downstage list indicated there would be some sort of shift, but all the sections looked pretty much the same.  Cold, impersonal interactions happening onstage began to break down as the dancers demonstrated more emotion leading to the intermission, but they returned in the same clothes 20 minutes later, changed outfits onstage, acknowledged the audience with the first (and only) eye contact we would receive, and carried on in the way they did before.

In order for improvisation to work in performance, there must be some clarity of motif, relationship, and a sensibility for when to stop moving.  There have to be clear rules, and even the utterance of “reset” couldn’t phase many of the individuals involved. Sound designer Ian Huddleston mixed atmospheric loops with sounds of incomprehensible text live, and though situated in the performance area he rarely looked up from his computer to see what the dancers were doing.  Projections (John Backstrom) of shadowed images of the dancers and a laser light show of sorts, in addition to abrupt and specific lighting from Dan Preble appeared to change arbitrarily, often leaving the dancers in the dark. At each “reset,” the dancers sometimes stopped and moved to the sides of the stage, and sometimes they kept going. Sometimes changed their costumes by picking from a pile of thrift store mismatches, and sometimes they didn’t. If this was an exercise in autonomy, filthy/mockingbird took two hours to demonstrate something that could have been accomplished in 20 minutes; the rest of the time felt like self-indulgent catharsis that raised many questions and provided few answers.

The striking visual impact and trance-like feeling this performance instills in its viewer cannot be denied, and what was perhaps most exciting about filthy/mockingbird was the members of its audience. Rare is a small modern dance performance in which I don’t recognize nearly every face in the audience.  Looking out across the crowd last night, I saw more strangers than friends, and that is a very refreshing thing to see.

Mikey Rioux and The Sho present filthy/mockingbird through Sunday at Links Hall (3111 N. Western). All performances at 7pm.  Tickets available at the door, or by visiting


Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.