Montom Mixes and Mingles at Mana

Visiting Mana Contemporary at its relatively new Chicago location nestled in a weird, barren block of Pilsen is becoming a more frequent occasion, and it seems likely that Mana will soon be on EVERYONE’S radar. It’s not too far and there is more parking than imaginable, plus, Mana has a hip vibe that can only be felt in this brightly white, unadulterated warehouse. High Concept Laboratories has taken up residence on the 4th floor, Lucky Plush is slated to take over the 6th, and there’s a super cool event space on 5. This was the home of Monica Thomas’ casual evening of dance on film, drinks, live music, and nachos.

That’s right, nachos. With bacon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Much more than nachos, an eclectic crowd of artsy types from all facets of the dance community, plus film people, music people, art people, and people I don’t even know people gathered for a celebratory screening of four short dance films, three involving Thomas (under the name Montom Arts) in one way or another. The fourth, Anacrusis, was conceived and directed by Lizzie Leopold and hubby/musician Brian Mazzaferri, and was by far the most ridiculous that evening (that’s a compliment). In music, the anacrusis is a pickup note — as in the duh duh duh before the DUNNNNN in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Imagine Marie Antoinette in a leotard having a dance party for one, and that is Anacrusis: the dance film.

Amanda Dye in "Anacrusis" (video still)
Amanda Dye in Anacrusis (video still)

Set to a clunky old version of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.1, the film begins when Leopold’s dancers (Amanda Dye, Alyssa Gregory, Cara Newman and Jordan Newmark) literally roll out the red carpet, squinting with pursed lips against a sun-drenched garage that appears to be sticking its tongue out. The action shifts between the garage, a dark warehouse and an ornate carpeted ballroom; Dye as the central character prances and leaps through the Hilton, interrupted by flashes of the quartet having a mini mosh pit. What exactly, is the intent of Anacrusis? It could be a comment on the pomp and circumstance of Beethoven or the Elizabethan era; it could be a not-so-subtle reminder to laugh at ourselves; it could be an excuse to reuse her red carpet and throw powder at her dancers. Again. Heck if I know, but whatever the excuse, I like it.

Thomas’ Here Delay (co-directed by Jason Chiu) also played with satire, though perhaps less overtly. Between intentionally mis-translated opera, voyeuristic top-down views of dancers Juli Farley and Michaela Federspiel, and not-so-steady infrared camera shots in a bare, dark room. Nearly every bad horror flick is given a subtle nod, which, dipping my fingers into nacho cheese, seemed totally appropriate.

Chiu and Thomas’ second collaboration on the evening, Bound, and Jason Elewski’s Uns-Apparatus came across gentler, but the deliberate, close-up camera angles and often faceless performances of both resonated deeply, though in different ways. Uns-Apparatus featured an undulating, murky duet performed by Monica Thomas and Matthew McMunn, though you wouldn’t know it without reading the program. Bound is a trio of women in white frocks surrounded by books, with much attention given to their feet and legs.

Ericka Vaughn Lashley in "Bound" (video still).
Ericka Vaughn Lashley in “Bound” (video still).

Dance on film can be simultaneously awesome and frustrating. In one sense, the director and/or choreographer get the opportunity to “tell” the audience exactly what to look at. Sure, you can put a spotlight on a dancer onstage, but you can’t force an audience member to stare at her foot and nothing else. This is, perhaps, the beauty of film, but also limits the voyage of discovery that comes from trying to figure a dance out. Then again, the four films shown here were wild and thick and abstracted enough that the journey was as beautifully bizarre as a live performance can be.

Admittedly, the fresh, funky, mix and mingle Thomas created was a little awkward without a companion, but I suppose that’s my fault for not bringing one. And, while a passive audience experience sitting in a dark theater might be convenient for me as a socially awkward dance critic, there are only, like, five dance goers who are like me. On the other hand, jotting down notes at a comfortable banquet table while munching a bowl of nachos and chatting with some super smart artists sitting around me did not suck, and if this is the future of presenting dance on film, if not dance in general, it seems like a pretty good plan.

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.