MOMENTA on fire

Oak Park dance troupe joins other companies in 'A Combustible Cultural Journey of Dance'

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By Mary Lee O'Brien

MOMENTA, the resident performing arts company of the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park joined two other dance companies in presenting A Combustible Cultural Journey of Dance on Oct. 1 and 2. The performances at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago also featured Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre and DanceLoop Chicago.

Starting a year ago, the three companies decided to do a collaborative concert on themes of social conscience and self-produce it in a big downtown venue. Cerqua Rivera serves as a creative haven for choreographers, composers, designers, technicians and visual artists presenting an array of artistic styles and original compositions: jazz, blues, classical ballet, modern, Latin and rock 'n' roll. Danceloop Chicago (DeKalb) is a company dedicated to dance influenced by literature.

The evening included yet another work of art commemorating the heroes and victims of 9/11 as MOMENTA presented the world premier of 254. The destruction of the World Trade Towers occurred on Sept. 11, the 254th day of 2001. Does this kind of remembrance diminish the grief? Does it trivialize it? Does it minimize the shocking impact with repetition? Are we still processing the event in order to live with it?

Choreographer Larry Ippel found a powerful inspiration for 254 in the painting "Tragedy, Memory and Honor" (2002) by Bruno Surdo, which is projected in numerous details as the backdrop to the dance. It depicts people, their faces in horror, in agony, stunned and frenzied. There are glimpses of the backs of firefighters' coats, bending over to assist the fallen.

Sometimes the paintings look like blurred photographs. There's a strong sense of living the experiences of that dayâ€"a chaotic feeling of stop-camera action.

The piece begins with two dancers sitting on a bench suggesting Central Park. Body percussion is used throughout: hands slap thighs, newspapers snap, feet stomp, coffee cups tap. Pretty young girls in summer skirts twirl in innocence and vitality. A young couple embrace, the girl admiring her engagement ring. Young parents enter with a baby carriage. We get itâ€"life is wonderful, America is unsuspecting. What can go wrong?

Next we witness the inside of a fire station with four firefighters, complete with red suspenders, lounging around, kidding each other. The background is lit a blood red but, unaware, the men snatch each other's caps and play off each other's rhythms. Four pairs of boots are lined up, ready for action. (The firefighters' gear was donated from stations in Oak Park, Forest Park and Stickney. The T-shirts and caps were bought at Ground Zero.)

Snatches of dispatch tapes are heard, the alarm sounds and they're off.

The mood changes effectively. A lone dancer sits on a chair suggesting an office in the towers. Wisps of smoke trail onto the stage. The dancer moves, slapping out imaginary sparks. A couple of dancers roll onstage slowly (remember stop, drop and roll). The tempo is now slow motion, as often happens during catastrophic events. We see the young girls from the park in ripped and dirty skirts, like frantic animals fleeing danger. The firefighters cross the stage diagonally, in mesmerizing cadence, a few steps, then crouching, as if testing the floor for heat.

The final scene brings back many of the characters. There's an exuberance, an almost determined gaiety about a young girl still dancing with another in a wheelchair. But there's a somberness with the entrance of the baby carriage, now plastered with flyers in an attempt to find the missing, the dead.

We're at a certain distance now from 9/11. We have more information, and are able to look back and see how that day impacts today. We take the worst of us and try to grapple with the best of usâ€"those who paint, who dance, who try to understand. Can we see the images again? Yes, when they're done with the intention and honesty evident in 254.

One of the admirable aspects of MOMENTA is their dedication to presenting historic works. Lynchtown was choreographed by Charles Weidman in 1936. Based on his own memory of witnessing an actual lynching when he was a young child, Weidman slowly begins our journey with women in various shades of brown costumes walking in measured step, feet flexed up, hands and arms in frozen gestures. One lone woman darts through this forest of dancers.

The audience "sees" the lynching offstage through the slow-building frenzy of the mob, pointing fingers, hiding mouths behind hands. Three men drag a young man in red across the stage, stopping to crouch over him like animals confused by death. This piece powerfully captures a dark time. Again, we're experiencing a terrible event in our past, further away than 9/11, but important to revisit.

Lynchtown was followed and underlined by a solo piece, Ida. It's a portrait of activist Ida B. Wells Barnett, a powerful journalist and spokesperson for civil rights and women's suffrage. She campaigned ardently against lynching until her death in 1931. Performed by Sarita Smith Childs, Ida gives a strong sense of this woman's passion for a people, as well as her own beseeching for personal strength and perseverance.

If MOMENTA was the brain of the evening, analytical and thoughtful, Cerqua Rivera was the body. Musicians onstage provided the driving music for the Latin-influenced dances. The precise synchronized movements were impressive and the dancers strong and very talented, but at times I felt entertained rather than challenged to think of social outrages or injustices.

Danceloop Chicago rounded out the evening. For me, the most exhilarating experience from this group was the gift of Paul Christiano's performance in Nijinsky (2005), choreographed by Dmitri Peskov to the music of Mozart. I was totally captivated by this young man's artistry and exquisite concentration. He blended awkward clowning seamlessly with beautifully controlled gracefulness. He pulled invisible strings to move his body like a puppet. I look forward to seeing him onstage again.

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