The Light of Spring,”Winifred Haun and Dancers’ Latest in a series of site-specific works, took place on May 5th at Unity Temple. These excursions by Haun & Dancers make great use of the many architectural marvels to be found in Oak Park. Productions include “Steps in the Garden”(2020) at Cheney Mansion and “Spring in the Garden”(2021) at Pleasant House. In “The Light in Spring,” Haun takes over the Unity Temple, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The building features a revolutionary cubist design and a daring use of concrete. The rectangular features of the space are accentuated with lighting designed by Ale Favila.
The program opened with an unannounced duet in the lobby that drew our attention one by one. The volume gradually dialed down as the dawn of realization rose over us. Like humans trapped in a swirling whirlpool, two dancers swooshed back and forth against the wall leading to the theater, caught us in their undercurrent and swept us into the performance space, a vast, multi-level room full of dark mahogany-colored pews and a large, concrete pulpit.
The program begins with a premiere, “Everything You Just Said,” choreographed by Haun, featuring dancers Crystal Gurrola and Myles Harris in a duet set to the music of Agnes Obdel and Jana Winderen. Gurrolla lies across a long black bench with Harris at the other end, head in his hands. Sometimes in sync and sometimes apart, they move like an abstraction of a therapy session, with Gurolla launching into an explosive vertical handstand hold, a worried look on her face. Meanwhile, Harris is there to catch her, helping her downward while remaining cool and nonchalant. The sound of flowing water whisks them around in a whirlpool that ends exactly where they started, a keen metaphor for how life’s turbulence is made easier with someone supportive in your life.
Before the next professional piece, a small group from Haun’s Young Dancers Project performs “It’s Quite Alright” by Haun and Assistant Artistic Director Summer Smith. The company of six young dancers. All display a tremendous effort and perform a brave execution of the work.
The next piece is “Bench”(2023), choreographed and vocalized by Lonny Gordon and featuring dancer Miles Harris. Earlier this year, I wrote a detailed review of a previous performance as part of Haun’s “First Draft” at Links Hall. (read all about it here). The work is similar but for two differences. First, the superior acoustics carries aloft Gordon’s vocalizations—clusters of “whoops,” hums and throat-clearing “achems”—amplifying Gordon’s baritone “hurumphs” so that they fill the air, hanging there for a few seconds before dissipating. Second, Harris strays from his prop, the eponymous bench, and climbs atop the edge of the concrete pulpit. “Bench” makes great use of the unique space to augment the funny, thoughtful and delightful imagery concocted by Gordon and Harris.
The program culminates with Haun’s “The Light in Spring” performed by the full company and accompanied by Barry Bennett’s original composition, performed live. Bodies come spilling down the stairways to ominous chanting and a war-like drumbeat. They ascend to the pulpit and melt over the railing like clocks in a painting by Salvador Dalí. In displays of daring-do, dancers appear on the edge of railings on the second floor and descend a full story downward, emboldened by Barrett’s dissonant chanting and slow strokes of what sounds like a distorted viola. It’s like witnessing a pagan ritual with a nine-person processional slowly building up steam, then exploding into big lifts and vertigo-inducing balances atop each other’s hips and shoulders.
Despite the amazing ambience, the space holds the dancers back. The aforementioned “daring use of concrete” is not conducive to dancing, where one slip could mean the end of a career, or worse. Every moment of my awe of the dancers is met with my thinking, “oh please, oh please, oh please be careful!” The dancers are noticeably holding back, with the shoulder and hip balances shaky when pulled off or are otherwise abandoned after botched attempts. A great fear for the dancers’ safety made the work a stressful experience, a distraction felt by not just the audience but the dancers, who have proven themselves more than capable when not dancing on a floor made of stone.
Winifred Haun is not afraid to push the envelope, that much is certain, and gets kudos for using non-traditional venues to create one-of-a-kind performances. Each show takes the audience out of their comfort zone. The site-specific performances by Winifred Haun & Dancers bring with them a sense of wonder and mystery. You never know what’s going to happen next. Haun is an artist who is certainly not afraid to go “out there” (in more ways than one).