Theater and film classics inspiring Chicago's dance scene

October 13, 2011

By Lucia Mauro

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(Lucky Plush Productions/Cheryl Mann)
Beginning in late October, Lucky Plush Productions performs 'The Better Half' at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Two upcoming dance performances involve unusual theatrical twists: One takes inspiration from a classic noir film, the other looks to Shakespeare’s Henry V. Both ask whether all is fair in love and war. For WBEZ, Lucia Mauro gave a preview on Eight Forty-Eight.

Pick Up Performance Co(s) performs Dancing Henry V Thrusday through Saturday at the Dance Center of Columbia College. Lucky Plush Productions’ The Better Half will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art later this month and in early November.

In the 1940s thriller, Gaslight, things are not what they seem. Charles Boyer as a murderous thief marries Ingrid Bergman, the niece of one of his victims. His intention is to return to his victim’s home for her priceless jewels. Throughout the movie, Boyer methodically tries to drive Bergman crazy so that he can eventually get her out of the way by committing her to a mental institution. Lucky Plush Productions, a local dance-theater company, uses ideas from Gaslight to comment on modern marriage—but that doesn’t mean all marriages are fraught with deadly schemes.

Choreographer Julia Rhoads and director Leslie Buxbaum Danzig have something lighter, but no less profound, in mind. Their world premiere titled, The Better Half, humorously cuts between elements from the movie Gaslight and an alternate reality in which an ordinary couple cave under the weight of life’s mundane challenges. The artists employ a meta-theatrical conceit, similar to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in which a stage manager oversees—and even manipulates—the proceedings. With guest artists from Chicago’s acrobatic 500 Clown group, The Better Half favors a dangerous, tumbling sense of movement, with high shoulder balances and aggressive lifts. They also use mime and abstract movement, together with text from Ingmar Bergman’s introspective Swedish TV series, Scenes from a Marriage.

In one sequence, the wife and husband get into a tiff over a set of misplaced keys, with the husband circling and backtracking to the point of mad frustration. His wife, who alternates between affectionate and wary, searches for a way to escape her boring routine while the man can’t seem to get out of the house. Through architectural lighting that suggests film noir and absurdist entanglements involving a detective and hidden jewels in the attic like the movie, the piece switches between real-life anxiety and theatrical contrivance. In subtle nods to the film, the five performers play around with simple props. The wife, for instance, rolls up her pants at the waist like a corset; one of the maids takes the plastic off the dry cleaning and wraps it around her hips to form a bustle.

In the end, these constrained characters in search of an escape route learn the virtue of compromise and raise the question: How much control do we have over our own stories?

New York-based Pick Up Performance Co(s), headed by witty post-modern dance excavator David Gordon, looks at warfare through a similar stripped-down lens. His hour-long movement reflection, titled Dancing Henry V, reevaluates Shakespeare’s beloved but questionably patriotic history play. It centers on the English monarch’s invasion of France in the early 15th century. The Cliff Notes-inspired staging transforms bed sheets into sails and sticks into broad swords against wry narrator Valda Setterfield’s chorus-like proclamations. A real mixed-bag of styles, Dancing Henry V pairs William Walton’s heraldic music from Laurence Olivier’s film version with semi-formal, royal court dance steps and dramatic voiceovers. The dancers are a ragtag band of storytellers in rugby shirts and wool caps—something of a blank canvas reenacting global conflict.

Both Lucky Plush Productions and Pick Up Performance Co(s) mine the classics for insight into the current state of love and war.