Review: ‘As the Crow Flies’ looks to the Midwest for inspired improv

CHICAGO — What makes dance “midwestern”? I don’t know, really, other than the unapologetic determination of midwesterners to do it. Call me biased, but there’s great dance happening in the middle of the country, by artists who don’t feel a need to seek approval from the coasts or have a specific urge to locate themselves there. And with a two-night engagement through Friday at Links Hall, curator Selene Carter gathers Chicagoan Julia Mayer and three artists from Ohio (Chris Seibert, Leslie Dworkin, and Kora Radella) for As the Crow Flies, an evening of midwestern improvisers whose work demonstrates aesthetic and thematic common ground.

It’s been about 15 years since Carter produced work in Chicago, but she never left the midwest. I remember that summer: it was a hot and sweaty one at Links Hall, which at the time was still situated smack dab in the center of Wrigleyville. I performed in a structured improv that Carter, who now lives in Indiana, had first created for students at Columbia College, retooled for a performance at Links. The Cubs were playing, the air conditioners were off, and the red line rolled by the studio windows every four to seven minutes.

You see, before there was Salonathon, there was Carter’s avant-garde performance series called Poonie’s Cabaret (which was later curated by Jyl Fehrenkamp and Joe Varisco, among others). Before there was SET FREE, there was Julia Mayer’s Coffee Dance. It was during this time that I first found improv. It was a humble, but electrifying era for experimental dance — a scene led mainly by women. Links Hall was the center of it all, with a post-Judson generation of makers and improvisors carrying forward the mission of Links’ founders, and doing it in a way that was distinct to Chicago. It was an exhilarating time — at least it felt that way to me.

And the thing is, dance in Chicago has changed a lot, particularly with its increasingly multi-disciplinary improv scene that pulls further and further from post-modern dance and movement-based studio practices. That’s ok, but bringing these talented, veteran movers together under one roof is still exciting to watch — at least it felt that way to me.


Selene Carter | photo credit Laura Breece

This sense of what came before hit me strongly in Carter’s two solo improvisations last night, coming at the end of each act. It’s a simple, open score, in which Mayer and Dworkin sit in the audience and count to ten, with ten indicating the end of the dance. The only other instructions given are whether Carter’s eyes are to be open or closed. In her first act improv, Carter recounts a story of her childhood desire to play Queen Esther at her family’s Purim celebration; in the second, she talks of the demolished Riverview amusement park that once stood at Belmont and Western, where Links Hall is now. In both, her movement vocabulary is luscious; she extends her long lines and recoils them, her body sensing the history of this place, the things that were here before, and now are gone.

Julia Mayer’s Left Off opens the second act, a tribute to her mother Karen Davis Mayer, who passed away last July. She similarly traces what I imagine to be echoes of impressions Mayer has of her mother as both a young and elderly woman. She rubs her face in a hunched posture, grabs at her side to spin her body 180-degrees, walks on tip-toe with a shimmy and a jazz hand. Each of these gestures occurs twice — the first set to poetry read from the audience and the second while an operatic score by Henryk Goercki plays — acting like bookmarks between long passages of methodical, melancholy rolling moving upstage and down.

Mayer joins Radella and Dworkin for the night’s opening improv, The Gorgeous Nothings, which employs big, crinkled pieces of cardboard. At first these props confine the three women to the upstage left corner, but of course that can’t last. The prerogative of a skilled improviser is to define the rules and then categorically break them. They oscillate between dancing and pedestrian movement, finding the happiest of accidents as they take these objects that used to be a barrier, and convert them into instruments, walls, bridges and forts, companions and burdens. What I most appreciated about The Gorgeous Nothings was the willingness of these women’s bodies to “say yes” at every turn, while their faces, at regular intervals, doubted the situations in which each found herself.

Capping the evening, Chris Seibert offered a spoken word piece cataloguing her relationships with father figures and other men from her childhood, then danced with Kora Radella in a work-in-progress called Reckoning, the most choreographed work on the program. From the waist down, the women wear wedding dresses that have been tucked and folded, topped by puckered, gray cotton bodices. As a recording of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 plays, the two rail against each other in a (beautiful) physical battle, thrusting fists toward one another’s guts, or prodding and pulling at legs and arms as feathers stuffed in Radella’s bosom go flying every which way. But in moments, the women slow the action and tenderly support each other’s weight. It’s hard to know what exactly the metaphor is: Are they swans? Geishas? Lovers? Runaway brides? Maybe all of the above — it’s fascinating nonetheless.

“As the Crow Flies” concludes Friday, 7:30 p.m. at Links Hall, 3111 N. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $10-15, available online or at the door.