Zephyr Dance pushes its limits, and ours, too (review)

Zephyr Dance is one of those companies that sometimes escapes my radar, particularly since the departure of Emily Stein a couple years ago. To be honest, I was slightly worried about what was going to happen to Zephyr and Artistic Director Michelle Kranicke when Stein split from the company couple years ago.

To be really honest, it might have been one of the best things to happen to both women. While Stein has a number of ongoing items of interest related to her deep knowledge of and passion for ballet, Kranicke took the opportunity to boldly rebrand Zephyr after 18 years as an all-female modern dance company with an acute focus on education. The move toward a mission that plays with experimental performance installation and pushes out to the edges of the artform captures Kranicke’s essence as a solo director, and evolves it. Over the past two years Kranicke’s work has shifted to durational, performance art-y, butoh-y installations. I can’t speak to this evolution per se, but what I can say is that her most recent work The Balance In Between is really, really interesting.

Photo credit: Rosa Gaia
Photo credit: Rosa Gaia

Upon walking into Defibrillator Gallery from a buzzing Saturday night on Milwaukee Ave., we are greeted by two performers seated on a bench in what looks like old fashioned swim wear (caps included). Ok, greeted is a loose term, here, because the two (Sabrina Baranda and Maggie Bouffard) would not acknowledge us in any way. They sat with perfect posture, pricked fingers and toes, and there they would remain for a long time… I’m actually not sure if either blinked. Aside from a single chair in the space, and the bench on which the two swimmers sat, there are no seats. We are left to stand, or camp out on the floor, as I naturally chose since I was toting a handbag, notebook and pen, and a can of beer.

Meanwhile, Kranicke emerges, slowly walking along an industrial wall of string strung through metal brackets to a piano durge by Erik Satie that we would hear over, and over, and over, and over. Her visage is obscured by an enormous fluffy pink tutu, and as she sits on the edge of her chair (the empty one in the middle that our tushes were salivating over), Kranicke takes a long time to tie herself up with a magenta string. We would never see her face, although I heard Kranicke’s breath as she tip toed dangerously close to and eventually over me. For a brief moment I experienced what it was like under all that tulle, and wished every one of my 20-ish fellow audience members could experience the same. Most of the audience shuddered away from any sort of close quarters with the performers, eliciting no reaction whatsoever from the “stage.” It seems as though The Balance In Between is meant to test our boundaries – our patience as viewers and participants – to push our limits relative to time and proximity. Kranicke’s creature would not interact with “the swimmers” until near the end, when the three engage in a series of exhausting stand-up, sit-downs lasting easily five minutes, possibly more. This comes after a beautifully executed series of phrases in which “the swimmers” are so perfectly, so alluringly synchronized in what Kranicke calls, “precise, stripped down, scrubbed clean movement.”

Is the The Balance In Between my cup of tea? Not usually, and a chair would have been nice, but with such a striking visual landscape, intriguing, stone-faced characters, tightly knit, intricate details down to the very fingertips and toes of each performer, it was hard not to like it. Add to that simple, gorgeous video and lighting elements, and the cool architecture of the white and charcoal Defibrillator Gallery, and Zephyr has a win on its hands.

The Balance In Between is a co-production between Zephyr Dance and Defibrillator Gallery, and the a prelude to a 3-year, 3-phase project investigating the spaces of contemporary practice through the lens of Salt, Site, Sky: materiality in opposition to virtual production, the location/relocation of work/practice, and the horizon of possibilities.

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