Review: ‘The Making’ exerts power over Pulaski Park

CHICAGO — Last Saturday marked the final performance of The Seldoms’ world premiere of The Making, an evening-length work for the company’s seven ensemble members, three visual artists and one live musician (plus all the other designers and administrative hands on deck). The evening unfolded at the remarkable Pulaski Park field house, which has been the the company’s artistic home since 2013.

The 100+ year-old field house is impressive both in stature and context. It’s hard to imagine that these Chicago park district buildings were constructed specifically for the benefit of working class, immigrant neighborhoods. In today’s political climate it seems utterly implausible that a city would devote such resources to the support of underserved communities. Indeed, they often don’t. On the other hand, we did get to see a full-fledged contemporary dance performance in this historic building, a dance which, according to the press release, is grappling with “states and positions of voicelessness — of powerlessness — drawing attention to the perpetual lenses that render a person, a people, a neighborhood, a nation visible or invisible.” One wonders what the ancestors of this West Town neighborhood would think about these themes and this repurposing of space? And my, how the conversations about power have changed since then!

The Making took place in three parts. The first section happened in a small-ish room set up like a traditional performance space: dancers on one end, audience on the other. An installation of textile panels by Fraser Taylor hung from floor to ceiling in various planes throughout. The dancers weaved through each other navigating around the scenic design and the confines of the space with mastery. Watching this section was a real opportunity for dance-lovers and composition nerds to geek out and enjoy. The movement phrases were layered and complex, with satisfyingly precise rhythms and motifs that were established and then varied. Refreshingly, the dancers did not seem overly intent on performing for the audience (save for a couple of moments when maybe they just couldn’t help themselves). Instead, they seemed to have other tasks, other intricacies on their minds. This sort of internal group focus, almost as if they were in a fish bowl or ant farm, was incredibly effective in drawing us in. Working largely irrespective of us set the tone for who or what would be in control for the rest of the evening. They were busy, they had dense choreography to execute, and we were there to witness.

We then got up and followed an usher out of the room. We walked down a dramatic hallway-turned-balcony that overlooked a large empty room in which Damon Green fed a long sheet of fabric (Faheem Majeed’s scenic element for the third section) to Christina Gonzalez-Gillett, who laboriously dragged the material on her back like a cross to bare. We were led to a beautiful room with an ornately designed ceiling and chairs set up in crescent shapes with open space in the middle. As we sat waiting for the “dance” to start, a striking projection (designed by Bob Faust and programmed by Liviu Pasare) emerged on the ceiling. The colors and shapes of the projection exactly outlined the architectural patterns on the ceiling, enlivening the room and urging us to stare above our heads like we would at a planetarium. Live music by acclaimed violinist Chihsuan Yang began and the dancers took their positions in the middle of their respective semi-circle of chairs. What followed was a round robin of solos and duets as the dancers made their ways to each of the audience cul-de-sacs and performed theatrical material depicting some sort of anguish, struggle or fear.

Cara Sabin and Philip Elson in “The Making” | photo by Callum Rice

Unfortunately, the dancers were so well rehearsed and so commanding in their presence that it was difficult to convince us that they were truly experiencing the emotions they represented. They danced the actions of strife but failed to deliver a sincere performance of feeling. Faust’s work continued overhead, dropping contextual clues with intermittent scrolling sentences like “Never showing what he carried. Always scared” or “Took nothing of my old life. Only my skin.” These were heavy statements to consider especially in combination with the live music, the close quarters and the in-your-face performances. Just as we became saturated with all this sensory information, the section ended.

We filed out of that room and down the stairs to the aforementioned large ballroom (or auditorium or gymnasium – such is the brilliance of multi-purpose community-centered architecture), where chairs were set in a single-file line the length of each side of the room. This space felt cavernous with high ceilings and a huge, inviting floor. We could anticipate the dancers would eat up this space and sure enough, they did.  Predictably, the choreography in this section included sequences of running, leaping, and flawlessly executed partnering; all the “big stuff” they hadn’t yet been able to do given the confines of the other rooms. And they do it well.

But now that we were at the end, I wondered about the trajectory of these individuals. Were we supposed to glean some kind of narrative about their lives from the beginning, the middle and the end? What did the various spaces, designs, and physical vocabularies tell us about visibility? What was their experience with perception or their relationship to “voicelessness”? What was ours?

All in all, there was nothing about this piece that successfully represented “powerlessness.” On the contrary, the dancers demonstrated extreme physical prowess – full of muscle, virtuosity, dynamism and incredible stamina. They were downright powerful. Furthermore, the rooms in the field house were largely dominated by the presence of the piece. The choreography overpowered each place, making the rooms bid to the dance’s will rather than working to reveal or enhance the space on its own terms. This feeling of colonization was made more obvious by the arbitrary visual elements which, with the exception of Faust’s design, had nothing much to do with the space itself. The scenic elements could basically exist anywhere (which is smart if you want to tour the show but leaves something to be desired in terms of cohesion). It seemed as though The Making imposed itself on Pulaski Park field house because it could.

Each dancer’s performance, most notably in the second and third sections, demonstrated acute levels of drama, unnecessary for the scale of the production. They shared intense eye contact with each other, gave meaningful stares to the audience, and occasionally downcast their eyes in deep moments of internal conflict or supposed self-reflection. When they nailed their choreography – which was always –  landing perfectly in a deep lunge or grabbing hold of each other a split second before falling, they did so with such punctuation that you knew they knew they were “on.” That type of powerhouse virtuosity might be a stylistic hallmark of Hanson’s, but in this circumstance these high-key performances seemed better suited for a proscenium theater with a capacity to seat 500 rather than the intimate proximity of the field house. The seating arrangements were intentionally designed to get us up close and personal yet there was a missed opportunity to display somatic nuance, a range of subtleties, and the smaller physical truths of our shared humanity.

The cumulative circumstances of The Making, the sounds, the designs, the bodies, the building, and the shear scope of the production is enough to chew on for days. It is almost too dense to consider the complicated political and social implications of “visibility.” Hanson’s choreography and its execution by her dancers are thrilling, however, “thrilling” might not be the right approach for this particular subject matter.

— Joanna Furnans