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Guest Performance Review:

Sites of Performance: "6TH ANNUAL SUMMER SOLSTICE CELEBRATION" at the Museum of Contemporary Art"


(Nancy G. Moore is a Chicago-area dance critic and historian who is currently writing a book on Valentine de St.-Point.)

How much of something do you need to see before you know what it is? Or is identification more a matter of the situation you're in -- of the way the curtains are drawn to expose the gun?

These questions occurred to me as I watched puppeteer Paul Zaloom performing "The Dream," an excerpt from "Velvetville," at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s "6th Annual Summer Solstice Celebration" – a two-day marathon of multidisciplinary performance art -- June 22-23.

Other performances were going on simultaneously outside the MCA Theater and would continue for 24 hours, causing me to think more than usual about how the conditions of performance -- the visual and verbal context in which it appears --influence interpretation.

And now Zaloom was messing with my mind, making me see a real person on a nice spring day instead of a black plastic rat standing on a shower curtain. Paradoxically, none of the objects on his stage seemed to have anything to do with what I was seeing -- until I forgot what I was looking at. The pseudo-scientific journalistic practice of basing one's interpretation of performance on a close examination of material evidence was proving to be a misleading tactic.

Zaloom's satirical sleight-of-hand took place during a comic two-hour event called "Nightfall Puppet Mischief." He was joined by Spiro Dousias in "Professor Punch's Tutorials for the Impotent and Forlorn" and by Blair Thomas (School of the Art Institute of Chicago), in "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal."

As the night progressed, the puppeteers gleefully took apart the basic elements of theater until the traditional puppet stage had been completely deconstructed; the puppeteer turned into a puppet; and the real puppets replaced by trash -- except for one nasty cat-puppet. All that remained was to skewer the audience. This task was taken on by Zaloom -- a wacky prodigy of Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater -- who appears to be a gentle soul when you meet him in person.

To get an idea of Zaloom's extraordinary stage powers, you first need to understand that he looks pretty ordinary. The only weird thing about Zaloom's appearance is that he wears a wireless microphone headset as if he were a pilot. This allows him to vocally impersonate characters and narrate the "dream" in which they appear, while never staying in one place for more than a minute. Much more unusual than his get-up is his "puppet stage," which is a large table with a backboard. The curtains – really printed shower curtains -- are on the floor. These he drapes over the table when he suggests a dramatic setting, such as the presidential inauguration.

What keeps Zaloom in constant motion are his puppets -- a huge assortment of found objects like a black plastic rat that he moves around on the table at supersonic speed as if he were in action-figure heaven. When he's done with them, he throws them on the floor along with the curtains.

Midway through Zaloom's fragmented narrative -- with its derisive references to capital punishment, police brutality and environmental destruction -- I noticed that I had become completely captivated by Zaloom's skill in making sense out of these dislocated objects. It was as if I were watching a play of invisible players. And the truth was not in the objects themselves but in the tension between what I knew them to be and what I was told they were by a very engaging fellow.

The spirited rout of theatrical conventions in "Nightfall Puppet Mischief" calls attention to the precarious connection between performances of all sorts and how we interpret them. If for example, in "Velvetville," we can accept an unpainted board as Al Gore, why should an actor or dancer bother to practice, let alone get dressed?

Some such thought was probably running through the minds of participants in the Movable Beast Dance Festival, which was initially staged out on a cold, concrete terrace while the puppeteers were snug in the MCA Theater. The courageous dancers, all women, were: Asimina Chremos; the gracious Joan Pangilinan-Taylor; a flirty French student of Kafka named Kim-Lien Desault; and the beautifully appointed Lisa Wymore, with guest artist Kim Nelson.

Each had informally marked out a dancing site for herself in a narrow space that would be perfect for hiding the kitchen staff ata garden party. Spectators could peer upon the girls from above or from the side as if attending a peep show -- an impression that was inadvertently furthered by the dancers' necessarily minimal movements in very slow motion as a rumba band played nearby.

By the second day of festivities, the Movable Beast dancers had found a space in the MCA Theater lobby where they could mingle with spectators, challenging the impression created by their earlier surroundings that they were merely objects of desire. Now they improvised together -- borrowing each other's costumes and props, -- in an acoustic environment of their own choosing designed by TV Pow.

Festival-goers swung through the museum's revolving doors to encounter Chremos and Wymore walking solemnly before them, bedecked with jagged branches of wilted leaves as if they had recently descended from the cross. Wymore carried a fishing pole loaded with garbage instead of fish. Later, she took a large wad of cotton batting and, with abbreviated gestures, alluded to the act of padding various parts of her body -- finally balancing the fluff on her head. When it fell off, Pangilinan-Taylor graciously placed it on a tray and passed it to Desault, who stuffed it in her mouth. I left after Desault had backed into a wall and was hanging limply forward as if impaled by a botanist.

Her three companions sat in a row and gazed at her attentively with their backs to everyone. It appeared that even the theater lobby supported an idea of performance that the dancers felt compelled to resist.

With weather conditions ideal for strenuous, large-scale outdoor activities, performers associated with the PUSH Skateboarding and Culture shop on Chicago Avenue fared much better, in terms of theatrical environment, than did the Movable Beast dancers. Their audience consisted of the hundreds of people lined up in front of the museum as the Summer Solstice festival got under way.

Moving before the wrap-around "backdrop" of Chicago's magnificent skyscrapers and the grand staircase of the MCA plaza, the skateboarders seemed integrally connected to the city's architectural energy. Even when one of them fell, he was so caught up in the rapid linear flow of the others that falling became a kind of syncopation rather than an occasion for acute embarrassment. These skateboarders used ramps, sets of stairs and narrow beams called "rails" for launching themselves into space -- the skateboards rising magically along with them as if glued to their feet.

I asked the owner of PUSH, Reggae Destin, about how his skateboarders maintain order in a such a potentially dangerous situation. He said that his approach to skateboarding is more about promoting a "flow" of energy than about showing off or intimidating less competent performers. He pointed out that in skateboarding, a crash can be as serious for an expert as for a novice -- a fact that helps to eliminate the aggressive maneuvers of urban freeways where drivers feel more "secure" within their vehicles.

While to the outsider, skateboarding may look like a haphazard assortment of lone wolves, it actually functions as a community enterprise that simply cannot go on unless its members stay tuned to each others’ constantly changing positions. In this respect, I thought, skateboarding is not far from dancing.

"Everybody Dance" is the name of the only dance concert at the Summer Solstice Festival that was staged in a location as amenable to theatrical performance as that enjoyed by the skateboarders and the puppeteers. Yet it is nearly impossible to describe. Organized by Dennis Wise and Nana Shineflug as the final segment of the Chicago Dance Legacy Project, the two-hour event took place Saturday afternoon in 13 sites scattered throughout the museum and its adjoining gardens. Over 40 dance companies from the Chicago area participated, with some bringing their own musicians as in the case of Darlene Blackburn's vibrant young group, the Calumet Career Academy Dancers.

A hundred or more bystanders were invited to rehearse along with the professional dancers for a concluding pageant on the MCA’s front steps. As a final gesture, a dancer from each company came to the microphone and identified his or her troupe by name. This was Shineflug’s way of reminding Chicagoans that "we have a huge dance community."

In deciding how to cover such an event, which was happeningsimultaneously in so many different places, I selected a few dancersfrom a list Shineflug had given me but then allowed my selection to be altered by performances that caught my eye as I hustled from one spot to another. The question of how much of one group I might need to see in order to accurately describe its dancing was immediately superseded by the question of whether I could see them at all due to the large crowds. This was truly the "Movable Beast" of the weekend.

Inside the museum, Dennis Wise staged a ten-minute marathon of kids running from one end of the foyer to the other. Shineflug, dressed in a hot-pink outfit, danced with a little boy in a black wig to a Beatles recording of "All You Need is Love." Attracted by the sight of two well-dressed ladies dancing to the Chenille Sisters in a stairwell, I paused to watch a pleasantly ridiculous solo by Lin Shook, whose company – Perceptual Motion -- includes women "of a certain age." Shook, who has not aged at all, presented herself in an orange bikini with an exaggerated conical bra, white bathing cap and orange flippers. To an orgy of bongo drumming, she jiggled in place.

I stared with complete assurance and walked away confident that at least one woman dancer at the Summer Solstice Festival had gotten away with something ordinarily denied, which is to say that through exaggeration she disrupted the usual spectator habit of making women’s performances into peep shows.

As puppeteer Paul Zaloom had demonstrated, bodies can be made into anything, regardless of gender, given the right circumstances.•
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