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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2001)



As its name implies, Big Dance Theater heightens and entwines the vocabularies of movement and drama. But this 11-year-old New York performance company, which made its Chicago debut Friday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theater, also advances a minimalist style of visual expression.

Its performance of "A Simple Heart," choreographed by Annie-B Parson and co-directed by Paul Lazar, contains the resonant whispers of a narrative while metaphorically evoking a primal rush of emotion. This 60-minute dramatic poem takes its inspiration from Gustave Flaubert's 1877 novella of the same name but does not aim for a slavish recreation.

Instead Parson condenses and broadens the story of an ordinary French maidservant, Felicite, whose fierce loyalty to her mistress, Madame Aubain, transcends fanaticism. As Felicite's surrogate loved ones (including a pet parrot) pass away, she folds herself deeper into a world of beatific hallucinations.

What sounds extreme and melodramatic comes across as gentle and measured in this stately work that celebrates the mundane without elevating it to extraordinary heights. The multidisciplinary piece, bathed in a cascade of soulful illumination by lighting designer David Moodey, opens with Felicite (split into twins) emerging from Madame's hoop skirt. Parson creates the illusion of Felicite's hands morphing into her mistress' feet.

The maidservant, played with innocent fervor by Stacy Dawson and Molly Hickok, shower Madame's infant daughter (performed from a deliberately skewed perspective by adult dancer Cynthia Hopkins) with the attention she craves from her repressed mother (Tymberly Canale in a breathlessly anguished performance).

The production combines a stark Martha Graham spiritual ferocity with the claustrophia of Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House."

Paradoxically, everyone but Felicite appears trapped in ennui and unfulfilled desires. It's the servant girl who seems to have found the freedom within her misguided and obsessive devotion. In this cocoon-like household, she has power. At the same time, Parson - as Flaubert - are not making sweeping statements about class divisions. They are exploring the more abstract notion of faithfulness and questioning whether it is a virtue or a self-constructed delusion.

David Barber and Joanne Howard's scenic design consists of eight suspended cage-like structures - beautiful but distancing. They are reminiscent of Laura Wingfield's collection of figurines in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" and speak to the same fantastical introversion. The sound of birds weaves through the sweeping strains of Henryk Gorecki and Glen Branca's foreboding interludes. Claudia Stephens' period costumes serve as a second skin, and a lush subtext, for the artists - stretching and billowing with every breath and gesture.

The life cycle unfolds in this concise yet complex piece, symbolized in a scene that unselfconsciously transforms a cradle into a headstone. •
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