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Performance Review:

Ann Carlson’s "NIGHT LIGHT," presented by Performing Arts Chicago and the School of the Art Institute


In the opening scene of Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, "Wings of Desire," a male angel comes down to earth and becomes enmeshed in the crush of urban humanity interspersed with the murmurs and diaphanous spirits of the past. This is how I felt during a walking "performance-art" tour of downtown Chicago during the early evening hours of July 12.

Ann Carlson – a Chicago-born/New York-based choreographer whose work blends dance, voice, sound and visual elements – set her captivating "tableau vivant" across Windy City landmarks in an attempt to reproduce archival photographs in three-dimensional form. The piece – presented by Performing Arts Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- is called "Night Light."

It consists of small groups taking a loosely guided tour of nine photographic recreations, beginning and ending at the Fine Arts Building. Along the way, participants are met by artists who share personal anecdotes about their connection to certain areas of the city.

But the most absorbing part of this journey – which can take anywhere between 90 minutes and two hours – is the sensation that we are delicately treading on the past while simultaneously making history in an unobtrusive way. The organizers have the tours down to a science, so audiences need not worry about getting lost. They will, however, relish in the sense of losing themselves inside the vagaries of time.

I recorded my feelings and perceptions – which moved from a bit discombobulated and surprised to learn we would be covering a lot of ground, to a certain sense of quiet elation. Not only did I feel at one with my own city, I also became enmeshed in its slightly supernatural energy. It was sort of like a séance on foot.

Before we set out, Carlson explained that these are living reproductions of the photographs, not of the actual historic events. "I’m interested in the collision of the historical moment and contemporary context," she said.

Audiences are armed with a program filled with the original black-and-white photographs. The first stop is the Art Institute of Chicago, where performers in silver- chalk- and charcoal-hued makeup (all of whom remain stone-still for hours) recreate a 1930s image of women washing one of the bronze lions. It’s an off-kilter paradox that fosters the larger dimension of non-tour participants’ stunned and baffled reactions. The performers, in their kinetic stillness, retain the fourth wall while simultaneously pulling it down by the sheer force of passersby’s uncontrollable curiosity.

We then head over to Madison and Wabash, where we climb up to an L platform to view a "photo" of a sax player (1990) from the same vantage point as "Chicago Tribune" photographer Chris Walker. Besides observing cosmetic changes to the corner, it’s fascinating to see new people cutting into the "frame" to indicate that time doesn’t stand still and to prompt the question: Does the photographer really freeze time?

Traveling northwest to State and Randolph, we come face to face with the most electrifying installation: a living shot of a hippie holding up a copy of "SEED" in front of Marshall Field’s as a well-dressed woman and one-legged man on crutches move toward the camera. In the distance, one can see the back of an older woman who is wearing a white sweater and striped skirt. One of the advantages of a photo in 3-D sculptural form is that viewers can walk around and actually see the face of the woman in the striped skirt.

This exhilarating scene set the immovable performers smack dab in the middle of befuddled and amused crowds trying to figure out what was going on. These motionless beings impeded daily life and caused a shocking disruption of pedestrians’ routines.

It was something of a disappointment to then travel south on State to a scrappy box holding the three-dimensional image of the Inuit-clad Lee Goodie (1976). More rewarding was the Romantic tableau of an Art Institute sculpture class from 1890 (with a model wearing a Native American headdress and robe) at the School of the Art Institute’s Champlaign Building. Despite some of the tedium of getting on and off elevators, the experience of the indoor recreations is almost mystical. The nine graciously clustered performers emitted serene, playful and eerie auras. They looked as if they could disappear in a cloud of dust and powder.

A dire scene of a pregnant immigrant woman (c. 1910) awaits tourists under the L tracks at Wabash and Van Buren. Her face exhibits pain, bitterness, defiance and a strange serenity as she leans against a stack of barrels loaded down with bags whose contents we shall never see.

Another creepily transcendent experience takes place when audiences enter the historic Congress Plaza Hotel at Congress and Michigan; take a claustrophobic elevator up to the eleventh floor; and meet five ghostly painters from the year 1945 caught in startling white light as they "march" in unison down the hall. It makes you ponder how many times this hall has been scrubbed and painted by anonymous hands. This scene gave me chills. It reminded me of the spirits wandering through the hotel in "The Shining."

Surprisingly, a reproduction of an antagonistic crowd photo from the 1968 Democratic National Convention is only half-realized across the street in Grant Park. Three National Guardsmen and three African-American women stand in stark geometric poses but do not capture the volatility of that horrifying event. Perhaps the City of Chicago was not too keen on resurrecting in graphic detail such a cataclysmic event from its past – especially in the midst of "Suite Home Chicago."

The tour concludes on a tranquil note with a sepia image of William Denslow from "The Inland Printer" (1901) in the Fine Arts Building.

At one point during the tour, a guide referred to the experience as "walking theater." It made me think of how our mundane lives can, at some point, be reshaped in a theatrical context to – paradoxically – give us a stronger understanding of the meaning of our existence.

On the bus ride home, I took a mental photograph of the anonymous passengers – knowing that moment could never exist again except in memory. I then wondered how many ghosts of the city’s past "escorted" me home.•

Ann Carlson’s "Night Light" runs through July 14. Tours depart between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. from the Fine Arts Building, 410 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets (including popcorn): $20. Call 773-PAC-LINE.

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