The Joy Comes From Anticipation in History-Making ‘Relations’

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    Ishmael Houston Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller in "Relations"
    Ishmael Houston Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller in "Relations"

 

 

But the break is never long enough, financial drought (which every adjunct understands) sets in, and I inevitably look forward to a return to the grind, which will soon enough feel like a hard slog again.

Sometimes there is more glee in the anticipation of the days you have yet to live. And the Museum of Contemporary Art surely was tingling with giddiness as we filed in for what was sure to be an historic night: “Relations,” by renowned choreographers Bebe Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones and Ralph Lemon.

These living legends have crossed paths many times throughout their illustrious careers, mostly in pairs; in fact, this engagement at the MCA marks the first time they’ve performed all together. Certainly, the importance of this night could not be overstated; to be in the presence of choreographic mentors and heroes, on stage together is to witness dance history as it’s being written.

The last time Miller, Houston-Jones and Lemon were on the same bill was 1982, as part of a series curated by Houston-Jones called “Parallels.” I was a year old.

Despite the passage of time, the questions asked in “Parallels” are the same ones being asked by a new generation of choreographers: What are the intersections between race and contemporary dance forms which fall outside the mainstream? And why are the contributions of African-American dance makers and choreographers of color under-recognized by the annals of 20thcentury dance history?

But this is no retrospective. In lieu of a history lesson, “Relations” brings these three heavy-hitters together here and now, to perform a fully improvised hour together. It’s impossible, however, to ignore the gravity of, collectively, more than a century of dance making on that stage, and much of that is reflected in the related programs and exhibitions, and a gorgeous gold mine of writing, scribbles and photos in a booklet produced by the MCA to accompany the event.

“Parallels" is an apt theme here, too, contained within the broad strokes of an evening which brings together three movers who share a collective experience across time and place (much of their careers being spent in New York), and yet are completely different. Of the three, it’s probably Miller who spent the most time moving, bopping from one side of the stage to another to change the music from a pile of records strewn in front of a turntable downstage, or from an i-device positioned upstage, dancing alongside or with her colleagues, mainly one at a time.

Houston-Jones and Lemon are more task-based: Lemon changes his shirt, moves brightly colored panels of drywall, and twice, screams an unintelligible manifesto read from copy paper, his glasses laid carefully near the record player as he shouts. Conversely, Houston-Jones and Miller squabble softly with one another, recalling events of the past and questioning, then yielding, to decisions being made in the moment about what to do next. I heard and understood about 20% of what was said on stage, and I’m guessing, but that was probably the point.

From the eighth row of the Edlis Neeson Theater, the whole affair felt voyeuristic. The artists' chatter permeated two rows of chairs positioned at the edge of the stage, laughter breaking out while those of us further away were left to smile and nod, thinking, “Huh? What was that?” Were we looking in on a bizarre cocktail party? A studio rehearsal? The inner workings of the minds of geniuses? All of the above, I imagine, but whatever it was, I felt like a third wheel.

No matter. The important thing about this performance was not what happened, but the fact that it did  – and that it happened in Chicago. Why curate this performance here, and not in New York? To answer that question, you need to have been there, watching so many of our city’s best improvisers and choreographers watching them.

The final performance of “Relations” takes place Saturday, 7:30 p.m. at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, Ave. Tickets are $30, with discounts and more information at seechicagodance.com/event/ishmael-houston-jones-ralph-lemon-and-bebe-miller-relations.