If you’ve never been to a dance performance where many of the audience members begin to contort their face into grotesque poses, you haven’t seen Striding Lion’s Dada Gert--- a tribute and modern interpretation of the body of work by the German Weimar era’s Valeska Gert.
That the audience reacts in this manner is no small thrill to Striding Lion’s Artistic Director and choreographer of Dada Gert, Annie Beserra. That was similar to her reaction when Beserra first saw archival footage of Valeska Gert, which began the seven-year process of journaling, study, research and brainstorming that culminated in the four performances now being held of Dada Gert at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater. (Note: Next two performances are May 30 and 31, 2013)
This was an installation piece, where you walk into the Dada movement-inspired set encountering empty picture frames, black and white dots of various sizes, blond wigs on a coat rack, corners of mirrors, tea sets and tables that could come from a George Grosz painting, and more accoutrements harkening the post-World War I cultural landscape that inspired the Dada movement. Christopher Ash, video and projection design, keeps part of our attention on a tumbling collage of images and footage of that time and Gert herself on one wall. Music begins that through the evening ranges from Bertolt Brecht to Kurt Weill and more.
If you walked in a tad sleepy, entering the set was a jolt of espresso, or rather a pot-full.
We soon meet an accordionist and performer (Dana Dardai) who not only further draws us in to this alternate world, but as the story unfolds stands in for the bourgeoisie that the Dada movement rebelled against.
Part neo-Dada and part reverential tribute to Valeska Gert, Dada Gert combines archival footage from her films, sound poems set to dance (or rather dance set to sound poems), and a modern elaboration of the studied grotesque movements that were the Gert style.
While others contorted their faces I must confess that my response was to keep smiling. Whether the energetic cast members (Beserra, Dardai, Jeff Hancock, Britt Banaszynski, Calyn Guberman, Michaela Federspiel, Ericka Vaughn Lashley) were curling limbs and lips alike into new angles or telling story vignettes of war, there was no doubt that this was full throttle expression, or rather – EXPRESSION!
Each act is named for roles that Valeska Gert played in her solos or in silent films. We meet “die Hexe” (Beserra, the witch), die Kupplerin (the procuress), among others.
Beserra explains that Gert would not have identified as a Dadaist, because of her desire to be recognized as an artistic and creative genius, a notion that was anathema to the conventional Dada crowd.
Beserra says, “We wanted to create a piece that is both a tribute to Valeska Gert and also to the Dadaists.
"We wanted to bring the Dadaists’ ideas of irreverence and fun and their provocative satirical sense into a contemporary framework. Gert was called a “grotesque dancer”…
“This is contemporary in several ways. When I was generating movement materials I started with a lot of freezes and physical positions that I took from archival photographs and strung together. I added my own way of moving and my own sense of rhythmic freezing. What you see in the performance is much more “dancey” than Valeska Gert herself would have done. Our movement is larger and our traveling pathways are more expansive, allowing us to do full leaps and turns and focus on many more full-bodied movements than the original Gert pieces. We intentionally exploded it a bit.
“But we did strive to maintain, as she did, an immediate confrontational connection with the audience. With her it was like a stick or accusation to the audience. There was a Brechtian sense of disengagement. In contrast we want to allow you into our movement fantasy but keep you in your own reality.”
If you have seen Dada art exhibits you definitely want to see Dada Gert to continue your engagement with that time and experience anew that breakthrough moment in the arts that paved the way for so many avenues of artistic expression since. If you haven’t seen a Dada painting or heard a Dada sound poem this performance is a great place to start.
Beserra and company add improvisational risk to Gert’s work giving it that contemporary feel that above all entertains. Don’t miss it.
May 30 and 31, 2013, 7:30 PM
Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theater
3035 North Hoyne, Chicago , Illinois
$20 or $10 for students/seniors
See www.stridinglion.org for more info
Photos: Matthew Gregory Hollis