The ‘Carpenter COLEctive’ is greater than the sum of its parts

CHICAGO — Margi Cole and Peter Carpenter have been courting for awhile (artistically, that is). Cole has joined Carpenter as a dancer for the last few installments of his serial dance called Rituals of Abundance for Lean Times, a project that began in 2010 at New Trier High School as a response to the economic state of the field. I talked with Carpenter in 2013 about the series, when the tenth installment premiered at the Dance Center of Columbia College and featured one of Cole’s strongest performances – like – ever.  I talked with him again last winter as he was getting ready to show #12 in a triple bill hosted by The Seldoms, at which time he hinted that this most recent episode shown May 1 and 2 at the Storefront Theater in collaboration with Cole’s company The Dance COLEctive might be the last of its kind. Watching the pair operate as co-directors in a choreographic marriage seemed long overdue… kind of like this review.

Lead by a pre-assigned docent, audience members are ushered around the Storefront Theater like groups of tourists at the Louvre, with the first stop on the tour being the catwalks above stage. We, the audience, are now the viewed, and the performers the viewers as the co-directors of this whole affair (Carpenter and Cole) sit stoically in the audience staring at us. We feel what it’s like to be observed, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s not just uncomfortable because we’re being watched. We’re also carrying our bags and jackets and wearing heels; sometimes it’s hard to see. To continue the Louvre analogy, it’s not unlike trying to get a glimpse at the Mona Lisa and then quickly being ushered to the next stop on the tour.

“This is where they started,” said Matthew McMunn, his body perched from a ladder leading up to the catwalk where we stood, hovering over the Dance COLEctive’s gym shod women noodling in pairings and trios of various combination as the leaders looked on. McMunn then entered a long monologue full of big words, the nugget of which was the chameleon. And so, we learned, this dance was to be about imitation.

In essence, RALT #14 is a “choose your own adventure” dance, except our choices are pre-determined. The experience of each audience member is not up to us, but rather, luck of the draw. Our docents led us from vignette to vignette happening in every corner of the building before finally guiding us to our seats for what turned out to be a very gratifying Greek chorus about boogers and Bruce Rauner, and a reprise of the dancing we’d previously seen from above at the top of the evening.

The thread that ties each Rituals of Abundance episode together is Carpenter’s commitment to transparency. In his explorations of power, economy, and agency, Carpenter unveils his choreographic process by making the process… the thing. Text and movement, in this iteration, were inspired by the aforementioned chameleon, by mimicry and imitation as both the highest form of flattery and the lowest form of degradation.

The Dance COLEctive has never looked better, and the addition of Matthew McMunn to Cole’s usual gaggle of women balanced and strengthened the cast. It’s kind of amazing to me that these “mid-career artists” still have the motivation, inspiration, and tenacity to continue to come up with new ideas and push the boundaries of the art form. While I might not entirely care for padding around a venue in heels and fighting for a sightline, it provided a previously unseen perspective of these artists that was totally appropriate to the concept of the work and almost worth the inconvenience. Given a coat check, smaller groups, and a pair of flats, this episode of Ritual of Abundance for Lean Times could have totally been the bees knees.