Fertility in the House of Dance

By Shelley Masar
from the Octopus 1/29/'99

With the icy control that so often characterizes his dancing whether on
stage or in a club, William McClellan ran through Talley Beatty's solo dance
work, Mourner's Bench. The solo is one of six works of modern dance included
in Festival '99: A Department of Dance Concert, held in the Krannert
Center's Colwell Playhouse from February 4 to 6. Associate Professor of
Dance John Perpener, who has directed McClellan's preparation of the solo,
watched the run through in deep contemplation.

McClellan, Perpener, and the late Talley Beatty represent three generations
of classically trained black male dancers linked by the UI dance
department's reconstruction of the dramatic solo that Beatty created for
himself in 1947. The fifty-ish Perpener, a scholar of African-American dance
who performed ballet professionally before earning a Ph.D. in performance
from NYU, explains that Talley Beatty was an original member of the
Katherine Dunham Dance Company in the 1930s. Dunham was a student of both
dance and anthropology who was having great success bringing the dances of
the African America to the concert stage. According to Perpener, when Beatty
left Dunham in the late '40s to form his own company, he listened to advice
urging him to capitalize on the popularity of the Dunham repertory, and
formed a group called Tropicana that danced "the exotica of the West
Indies." But the group did not last long, says Perpener, because Beatty's
real interest was not anthropology but classical ballet. Like other
African-American dancers of that breakthrough generation (e.g., Alvin Ailey
and Donald McKayle), Talley Beatty went on to make a career using classical
vocabulary to speak about black experience.

Mourner's Bench, the only piece in the Festival with any political punch,
was inspired by Southern Landscape, a novel by the socialist author Howard
Fast. The solo refers to the tragic influence of the Ku Klux Klan on a
mixed-race community in the rural South after the Civil War. It is set to
the traditional spiritual "There is a Balm in Gilead." McClellan's
performance of the deep contractions and attenuated reaching of the
choreography is fascinating. He asserts himself within and against the
themes of oppression and transcendence. There is a moment at the beginning
when McClellan inserts a very contemporary break-dance-like dynamic to the
highly stylized, gestural vocabulary of the venerable piece.

Mourner's Bench is one of three reconstructions included in the dance
concert. The other pieces from the past are Soaring, choreographed by Ruth
St. Dennis and Doris Humphrey in 1920, and Jos* Limón's A Choreographic
Offering from 1964. In the early '70s, Arlene Croce, that most caustic voice
of dance criticism, essayed to explain the then-new impulse to reconstruct
the dances of earlier periods, "Even the general public has realized that an
important movement in dance history -- modern dance -- has run its course.
Death of fertility in the house of dance has inspired new interest in its

The grudging Croce describes the old works in a way that fascinates.
Especially Soaring, which she said is "a prime example of music
visualization ... starring a square of silk supported by five girls who make
it billow like a canopy or shimmer like a water fall." Croce recommends that
we take Soaring for what it is, "a 19th Century theatre piece ... an example
of the best in 'Mickey Mouse' dancing." (The verb "to Mickey Mouse" denotes
"abusively literal musical theatre." It is derived from Disney's Silly
Symphonies, which Croce says were often "more imaginative than the dance
works they imitated.") The young Doris Humphrey is credited with the idea
for Soaring. Croce suggests that Humphrey was inspired by St. Dennis, whose
solos were often "partnered by a scarf."

The historical interest in the work of Ruth St. Dennis and her husband and
partner, Ted Shawn, is based on the perception that they launched
institutional dance theatre in America. Together as Dennishawn they opened a
school in Los Angeles in 1915 that was quickly followed by branch schools
all across the country, and they made an enormous impression in their annual
tours of the nation's concert halls and Vaudeville venues. Philosophically,
Dennishawn referred to Whitman, Nietzche, Buddha, and Havelock Ellis for its
understanding of the human spirit and sexuality, and to Swedish Gymnastics
for its movement vocabulary.

José Limón's A Choreographic Offering, choreographed 40 years after Soaring,
was his tribute to Doris Humphrey, his friend and mentor, who began with
Dennishawn but went on to evolve and refine the art of choreography for the
proscenium stage. Her book on the design elements of concert dance, The Art
of Making Dances, has been required reading for every college dance major in
the U.S., since its publication in 1958.

A Choreographic Offering calls for 22 dancers and quotes motifs, phrases,
and variations from more than a dozen of Humphrey's most significant works.
The piece will make you smile; it is a lyrical universe built on prodigious
discipline. Nothing is wasted or random. Space and time submit to the
choreographer's will. The UI dancers manage beautifully. Especially
noteworthy are Mei-Kuang Chen's solo and the duet between Walter Kennedy and
Denise Zdenek.

In addition to the three museum pieces, there are three premiers on the
program. UI Associate Professor of Dance Renee Wadleigh's Opus 38 -- for
four women and two men to music by Peter Sculthorpe, Sinead O'Connor, John
Lee Hooker, and Astor Piazzolla -- is her most successful piece to date.
Wadleigh's sensibility is a shock after the highly visual, abstract,
stylized lyricism of Doris Humphrey/Limón. Dancers enter casually. They use
their joints with deep sensuality (especially Michelle Boul*); we see and
feel the relationship of bare foot to floor. Confrontation, hostility, and
disappointment are expressed in the coupling and grouping of the dancers.

But some of the most joyous minutes of the concert are to be had in the
second movement of Wadleigh's Opus when two couples -- one black (McClellan
and the gorgeous Pleshette McNight), one white (admirably danced by Erin
Stutland and Tom Trimble) -- perform the same duet side by side. The women
stand on black boxes. The men crawl the floor to enable the women to move
through space without leaving their pedestals. The image has something of
the Orient about it.

Dance Faculty Artist Rebecca Nettl's new group work, Once Removed, was
created in collaboration with the dance department's music director,
Christian Cherry. The result is a piece of music that the Kronos Quartet
should consider. Nettl is a choreographer's choreographer, whose sensibility
falls nicely between the stylized joy of Doris Humphrey as quoted by
Limónand the dark sensuality of Renee Wadleigh. It should be noted that
dancer Molly Wilson's performance brings flow, intensity, and dramatic
certainty to both Wadleigh and Nettl premieres.

The final debut of the concert was created for the UI dance department by
Bessie Award-winning choreographer, Doug Elkins. The piece for 17 dancers is
remarkably named, Frank Gehry's House on Lauryn Hill. Gehry is the
California-based architect infamous for his public buildings -- including
the Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, " a shimmering looney
tune, post-industrial, post-everything, burst of American Optimism wrapped
in Titanium." Gehry's work is grounded in the post-industrial city, which
his buildings attempt to transform into spaces where people can "find
empathy within the tensions of social fragmentation". Lauryn Hill is a young
hip-hop vocalist who records as a solo artist and with The Fugees. Like the
architect and the hip-hop queen, the choreographer Elkins is a creature of
the city. A native New Yorker, he draws inspiration from all forms of city
movement from break dancing to martial arts such the Brazilian caporeira to
salsa, flamenco, and the dancing at raves. As his title suggests, he
embraces the world eclectically, and the result is optimistic and fresh.

According to a recent review, Elkins once asked his dancers to "move
according to the skin's post-orgasmic hypersensitivity." Such a state would
be a nice place from which to view this dance department evening of old and

Tickets for Festival '99: A Department of Dance Concert from February 4 to 6
at 8 pm can be purchased at the Krannert ticket office at 333-6280, or via
e-mail at kran-tix@uiuc.edu.