Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble tackles tough topics (review)

Celebrating 15 years this season, Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble (CDE)’s latest project is an ambitious investigation into sexual assault and domestic violence. Titled Bindis & Bruises, the 45-minute work of dance theater focuses in on this sensitive topic mostly through the lens of Indian women, driven by the real experiences of creators Ellyzabeth Adler and Priya Narayan. Running through March 19 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Andersonville, each performance of Bindis & Bruises is preceded by a group of guest artists.

On the bill during my visit was Silvita Diaz-Brown’s Encuentros, an acro-circus-inspired sextet referencing three stages of love: infatuation, trepidation, and liberation. A petite and quirky “ring master,” poet Lani Montreal emerges in a tuxedo to address the audience and give the premise; she then shirks into a corner to narrate poetry into a microphone with John Lawrence Geary’s kitschy musical accompaniment for the dance that follows. Performers Diaz-Brown, Carlos Lopez, Christopher Knowlton, and Tatiana Cira Sanchez perform some impressive acrobatic feats (made more so by our close proximity to the artists) while the etherial Ingrid Larson is a sort of fairy flitting around them for the majority of the piece. Larson changes her dress thrice – perhaps playing the part of love in its three forms – though her role, like Montreal’s, never really gels with the four acrobats.

Sara Maslanka, Maren Rosenberg, Shalaka Kulkarni, Alexandra Elam, Lucía Mier y Terán, Ana Medina Martinez, Susanna Hostetter, Jillian Leff, & Brittany Harlin in ‘Bindis & Bruises’ | Photo credit: Al Zayed

Bindis & Bruises also begins with text, from guru Priya Narayan seated at a desk positioned at the bottom of a short set of stairs in front of Ebenezer’s sanctuary and covered altar. The scene is a mix of modernity and antiquity, with a Tiffany-style lamp and apple computer casting light on Narayan’s face. She is a magnetic performer, incorporating text and Indian dance to portray a normalized history of domestic violence against women in Indian culture. Narayan is supported by ten women, who begin the piece shrouded in white voile saying things like, “We don’t talk about it,” and “It’s always been this way.”

When the veils come off, a number of scenes unfold, some abstract and others quite literal, related to patriarchy in the home and the submission of women passed down through generations between mothers and their sons’ wives. The diverse cast of women assume different roles, including scenes involving queer characters with a reminder that no person, regardless of gender or sexual identity, is immune to sexual violence.

Sara Maslanka in 'Bindis & Bruises' | photo credit: Al Zayed
Sara Maslanka in ‘Bindis & Bruises’ | photo credit: Al Zayed

While I admire the courage it takes to create a work like this, and feel its importance intensely, I almost wonder if it was too much to take on; the scrappy, DIY feel CDE brings to performances minimizes Bindis & Bruises’ impact. Really, I just think that CDE suffers from too many goals. We were, throughout the evening, reminded of all the things the company does through video and speeches about the arts education, advocacy, performance, dance, theater, and so on and so forth initiatives they do, all under the umbrella of “performance with a purpose.” The piece itself explored its topic from so many sides that it sometimes got confusing and drew me away from its true purpose. In Bindis & Bruises final moments, though, the dancing is quiet, and a truly compelling video projected on the back wall portrays a modern interpretation of the goddess Shiva with ten arms. The focused attention to one idea, through one medium, is visually striking and emotionally impactful. It is a sobering reminder of universal experiences women face, of the multiple roles we play, and I would see the whole show again if only to glimpse that video once more.

CDE founder Ellyzabeth Adler is a smart and versatile Jill of All Trades: teaching, writing, directing, choreographing, making sound designs and projections, and even working as her own stagehand. In taking on so much, each of her many roles is diluted, her company’s identity confused. Maybe all that is beside the point, because the intention of Bindis & Bruises is likely not to dazzle audiences with production value and high kicks, or to emerge from the handful of other mid-size companies committed to social justice through multi-media performance, but to inspire conversation around a topic most people can’t or won’t talk about.  That being the case, Bindis & Bruises is a win.

Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s Bindis & Bruises continues through March 19 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster. Tickets are $10-20, with limited availability at the door. For advance tickets call 773-486-8261 or visit

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.