Dance is a medium that inherently deals with space—the spatial relationships between dancers and the physical movement of bodies on stage. The Chicago-based contemporary dance company known as the Seldoms took the parameter of space to a higher level in their first performance at the Harris Theater in Chicago. The venue itself took on a starring role as the audience moved through the space. Tim Daisy composed the original score for this exploration of site-specific dance with music tightly customized for the wide variations in the vignettes and environments. The audience became participants by mere virtue of sharing tight spaces with performers. And ushers became tour guides charged with keeping people in the right places at the right times.
The printed program for the Seldoms’ performance was broken into multiple cards that were gradually dealt out one at a time before each vignette. The first card set an appropriate tone:
This is not a dance concert. This is an anniversary dance party. This is a promenade. This is a backstage pass. This is a mile marker. This is a reflection. This is a record of actual comments. This is a subversive act. This is our debut at the Harris Theater. This is an endurance event. This is a thank you to our Chicago audience. This is a nod to all the moving parts of live performance. This is the starting block for our second decade of art-making. Runners to your mark.
As part of this debut performance, they offered a tour-as-performance of the structural layout of a unique theater design that places the balconies and performance stage at the same level as the underground parking. Even the balconies are located a couple of floors below the main entrance.
At the beginning of the evening the audience was broken up into smaller groups and instructed to line up at different doors. This allowed for relatively small groups of people to move quickly between different stations. It also meant that each team experienced a different sequence of vignettes leading up to the finale during which the full contingent of musicians, dancers, and audience occupied the main stage itself. The choreography of funneling attendees into lines for the anticipated spectacle ahead gave the early part of the performance the feeling of a crowded theme park with long lines leading toward the roller coaster. The act of moving between different acts gave a sense of active participation to an audience that spent much of the evening standing, walking, and coming into close contact with a different combination of dancers and musicians at each station. It was a thrill ride along aesthetic dimensions.
The spatial variation was noteworthy on multiple levels. The quality of the dance performances varied a great deal between stations; it was the consistent qualities of the music compositions that gave the experience its cohesion and cut through the substantial differences in acoustics found throughout the building. Tim Daisy’s music was closely matched to the location and sense of playfulness found in each vignette. The echo-rich environments of the lobbies were accentuated by drums and pianos to match the range of motion explored along the stairs and benches, while the less reverberant areas around and behind the main stage featured wind instruments to match the story telling that marked the dances in those areas. Finding a fresh, new combination of so many of Chicago’s great improvisers at each station added to the sense of discovery.
The most satisfying vignette of the evening was performed in the back stage area. A duo of male dancers put on costumes while elevating themselves on a pair of aerial work platforms before settling into a whimsical story of professional jealousy and one-upmanship. This was accompanied by the inspired instrumental combination of Jaimie Branch on trumpet, Katherine Young on bassoon, and Anton Hatwich on bass. The rhythmic contours of the music brilliantly suited both the slapstick elements of the dance and the acoustics of the concrete-enclosed setting.
The vignette performed in the seating area of the main stage offered another dose of whimsy as a trio of dancers emulated the jostling and struggle to settle into one’s seat typical of audience members attending a formal performance. The exaggerated rustling of programs, coughs, and constant standing and sitting to allow people to pass through narrow rows played upon the movements of a typical audience. The accompaniment for this action was another strong trio featuring Tim Daisy on marimba and percussion, James Falzone on clarinet, and Jennifer Clare Paulson on viola. The physical coexistence of dancers and musicians was further emphasized with Daisy stepping onto the stage while playing percussion as a deliberate element of movement among the dance troupe. Another creative layer that spoke to the careful timing and choreography of having multiple vignettes running simultaneously in different locations was the appearance of a dancer on the catwalk who had just stepped away from his active role in one of the lobby performances.
The lobby of the Harris Theater exists on multiple levels connected by stairs. Two vignettes performed on two of those levels simultaneously posed particular issues for the music, as there was considerable sonic bleed through between the two ensembles playing within such an acoustically live space. With the dancers moving metal benches around, dancing along the stairways, and quoting various Yelp reviews of the Harris Theater, the music and action occasionally drowned out their verbal contributions. While the music wasn’t as clear as one would hope, the visuals were striking.. They even danced their way into the bathrooms as they quoted reviews of the bathrooms themselves. The relatively small spaces of the lobbies did allow for close observation of the musicians and dancers and did feature some of the strongest ensemble interactions and costumes of the evening. It was also a space enhanced by the unique lighting of the Harris Theater lobbies, as each vertical level of the lobby is illuminated by contrasting hues of florescent lights.
The finale on the main stage brought the full contingent of dancers and musicians together. Hearing the complete ensemble playing together provided a great punctuation mark to the musical side of this event. Tim Daisy wisely composed a score with this specific set of improvising musicians in mind and his music hit an excellent balance of compositional structure and improvised detail. The dance itself didn’t quite hit that same sense of full ensemble as the Seldoms continued to muse upon earlier themes that maintained the small ensemble feel even with the extra bodies on stage.
But the true exhilaration of the experience was rooted in the audience’s participation through movement—passing through areas of the back stage and break rooms once shielded from audience view and discovering the previously unknown connections between cat walks and lobby exits all while anticipating unexpected usage of space, not knowing if one was standing in a place that would shortly become the center of the action. In this respect, the layering of music and movement into an experience that shatters the fourth wall made for a well thought out dance party that appealed to many senses.