CHICAGO —This past weekend Madeleine Reber and her company Salty Lark Dance shared a split bill called 664 Miles with Philadelphia-based choreographer Katherine Kiefer Stark’s company The Naked Stark at Links Hall.
Chicago-based Reber presented three works, all of which were steeped in a distinctive physicality based on her years of somatic study particularly with Bartenieff Fundamentals and Laban Movement Analysis. This specific kind of training tends to yield a dancing body that is highly efficient. The study of anatomy, proper joint movement, and the clarity of direction of the dancer in space generates a physicality that flows seamlessly from one movement to the next. It’s almost as if the body follows itself on a ride smoothly through its skeleton and is oh-so-gentle with its muscularity, only using as much muscular action as is necessary to execute the moves: no more, no less.
As opposed to what? We’ve all seen shows where dancers proudly (and impressively) display their strength and effort in performance. They kick with force, jump with a little extra oomph, sprint across the stage and leap into another’s arms as if their lives depended on it. The theatricality of this kind of exertion is a style unto itself. Reber’s style, although not entirely opposed, is more tender, more drippy, but no less effective in its potential to express dramatic meaning.
The show opener, “Parachutes in Our Pockets” (2016), was a work for the entire Salty Lark company of six women. Set to the whimsical music of Jacques Brel, the dancers introduced us to the sweeping, lilting, rolling movement vocabulary that would come to define Reber’s choreographic signature for the evening. Expertly performed, the dancers navigated the space with expansive contemporary dance phrases, seamlessly changing formations between duets, trios, quartets, diagonals, straight lines and clumps. They ebbed and flowed with the crescendos and decrescendos of the music and audibly incorporated their breath as both movement cue and score throughout. With their hands, the dancers mimicked the inflation and downward drift of a tiny parachute, a motif that reoccurred on multiple occasions in the piece. The dancers also held hands and ran around the room, dragged each other through the space, timidly rested their heads on one another’s torsos, and on at least one occasion, laid side by side spooning one another (less like lovers and more like children cuddling). Ultimately, the environment of the piece felt a little like a children’s nursery where make believe, play, risk, recovery and friendship were the primary concern.
A premiere, “Bones and Trains,” was the second piece in the lineup and Reber’s strongest choreography of the evening. This quartet performed by Natalia Alarcon, Kelsey Herbst, Kathryn Hetrick, and Bonnie Christine Willis really demonstrated Reber’s skills in choreographic phrasing. Set to the driving music of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”, the dancers had to move with crystal clear precision in order to execute the highly specified movement at such a rapid pace. Herbst was particularly excellent in this piece, moving through the challenging material with remarkable ease and just the right amount of personal flair – not too much to divert attention from the rest of the ensemble but just enough to stay fixated.
The costumes – linen dresses on two, slacks and linen shirts on the others – and some of the sound cues in Reich’s “Different Trains” (train whistles, train conductors, a voice saying “1939”) harken back to a different era. The urgency and rush of the sound and choreography makes us feel the unease of transit and the anxiety of finding oneself in need of escape. These are themes that are certainly relatable today, so one wonders why Reber would choose to position this work in a historical frame? What benefit does it offer to add this element of narrative information? Perhaps it is easier to deal with the trauma of a known past than the tumultuous unknown of the present.
Next, in a jarring yet welcome change of pace, Stark’s first work of the evening, “Power Suite” (2017), was a group piece with audience participation. The performers, Sean Thomas Boyt, Leanne Grieger, Marisa Illingworth, and Harlee Trautman, bounded on stage and laid various super-hero-related costume pieces on the floor. They proceeded to tell us that each section of the audience (delineated by slips of paper preset on our seats) was a “team” associated with one of the performers. It was our job to choose two costume elements that “our” performer would wear and then continue to cheer on “our” performer for the duration of the piece. What followed was an unfortunately insincere and overacted choreographed demonstration of mock-struggle, defeat, and victory. What was successful, however, was the audience participation. Chicagoans certainly love their teams and this audience was not shy with their hootin’ and hollerin’. The disgusting contagion of competition and ruthlessness in the fight for power was a message not lost on this viewer.
Stark’s solo, “What’s in a name?” (2017) offered a bit more interesting political and social commentary. It began with a rather schiticky structure: first, a benignly earnest modern dance to an intentionally terrible rendition of Sondhiem’s “Send in the Clowns”, then a full-on lip-sync to Zach Brown’s country anthem “Chicken Fried”, and again, an intentionally boring dance accumulation to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
This structure was disrupted when Stark grabbed a microphone and made a deadpan joke about it probably being a surprise to us that both her parents were white (Stark is a white woman). She then describes an admiration for Sarah Silverman and the story of how her Christian mother and non-observing Jewish father eventually decided to practice Judaism. Stark alludes to the skepticism she has faced from people questioning whether or not she is “really” Jewish, the conversion of her grandparent’s surname Kaplan to Stark, and so on. She even dances an embellished “Hava Nagila” to drive the point home. This solo was most effective when Stark seemed to be herself onstage rather than showing us a “performance” of self. And maybe that was the point. In the end, in another moment of audience participation, she had us stand up and face the back wall while she danced to our backs asking us to “respect her request not to be seen.”
The final work of the evening was Reber’s “Lighthouse” (2011). It started gravely with four women in chairs and progressed through a depiction of madness (interpreted in a terrific solo by Hetrick), strife, and entrapment. One got the sense that the room was closing in on them – Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” comes to mind – and no matter how hard they tried, they were destined to return to the confines of their seats. It was difficult to avoid reading that narrative in this work just as it is tricky to avoid the cliché of the canonical “chair dance” in a choreographer’s repertoire.
Nevertheless, it is clear that along with fostering a company of exquisitely trained dancers, Reber is adept at creating specific atmospheres in her work that evoke time periods, rooms, and circumstances where the dancers reside. Like a good Todd Haynes film, Reber’s work seems more about the veiled glimpses of contained experiences rather than a more raw, broad-ranging, and unfettered depiction of female life.