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DANCIN' FEATS 'Signifier' is full of firsts
by Lauren Warnecke
2015-10-13

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About a year after arriving in Chicago, choreographer Joanna Furnans is trying a whole bunch of things for the first time. Furnans' first attempt at creating an evening-length concert includes new collaborations, new sources of funding, and new initiatives.

Signifier, premiering Oct. 23 at Links Hall, includes dancing by Furnans, Hope Goldman and Julie Boruff, with lighting by Christine Shallenberg, a recent LinkUP artist whose credentials include five years as the lighting director for Merce Cunningham. Furnans is also collaborating for the first time with her partner, Christine Wallers, a visual artist creating scenic design for Signifier ( Wallers' first scenic credit ) made possible through a DCASE grant ( Furnans' first ), in a studio space Wallers and Furnans share in Ravenswood ( a first for both women ).

In an interview with Wallers and Furnans, they discussed the nature of their collaboration. While the scenic elements and the dance are being created side by side, Wallers began the work with a line of investigation completely unrelated to Signifier.

Wallers' initial spark was rooted in kumadori, a specialized stage makeup technique used in traditional Japanese kabuki theater. In kumadori, the colors and patterns of actors' makeup represent qualities of the character they play. Wallers also became interested in how Japanese kimonos were constructed and folded to represent different classes, and the hidden language that could be determined by how it was worn. She saw parallels of this hidden language to gay culture in the 1980s and 1990s, when subtle jewelry or clothing choices were used to identify other gay people. While flashy fabric hidden within a kimono or a pinky ring don't resonate today as particularly rebellious—symbolism hidden within a subversive counterculture were bold assertions that carried potentially grave consequences.

"I'm not interested in any of that," said Furnans, whose dance is about deconstructing and reconstructing dance phrases with specific attention to how dance is gendered and sexualized in stereotypical and heteronormative ways. "The dancers [in Chicago] are awesome—they're just incredible—but there's a very heteronormative representation of how female dancers should be dancing," she said. Furnans is scrutinizing classical techniques such as ballet and contemporary dance, in part due to a the realization that she was beginning to adopt some of these choreographic trends. She found that she was being influenced by a need or desire to look "pretty," and as a technical, classically trained dancer was "getting trapped in [her] own picture of [her]self."

In creating Signifier and, in general, Furnans desires to make dances in which every movement is intentional, rather than defaulting to moves that are expected or commonly performed by others. She often looks to the clean and crisp lines and forms Merce Cunningham developed as inspiration because of his ability to "wipe the slate clean from the embellishment that makes movement gendered," she said.

"What are the signifiers in our techniques that make us read as feminine, feminized, sexualized… any of those things?" she asked. Then, after acknowledging the connotations of these movements, Furnans sought to figure out if she still liked and gravitated toward them as source material for her dances. On a larger scale, she hopes to prompt audiences and choreographers to evaluate our innate judgments and perceptions of these movements, and identify that we can choose to do something different.

In their discussions, Wallers felt that there were similarities in their ideas, because at the core both lines of investigation are rooted in representation. "I love that [Christine's] stuff is imbued in there," said Furnans, "but I'm not enacting any of that in the physicality. And that's ok… I gave her some parameters, the main one being that I didn't want any physical obstacles in the space. I didn't want to have to interact with anything. Her approach to [the] content is very different than mine, but I didn't really care how that manifested." Wallers' ideas are shrouded within Signifier's scenic elements, providing fodder for multiple layers of meaning when a viewer interacts with it.

The two artists, however disparate in their interests, are perhaps more similar than different. Each skirts between avant-garde and classical artist communities as formalists who respect and observe the traditions of their respective art forms, while acknowledging that part of that tradition includes breaking the rules and rebelling against norms. Each desires to view and to make work that has a fresh approach and innovative edge, yet is intentional, rigorous, and displays a level of discipline that isn't always present among fringe artists and performers.

"There's a balance somewhere in there," said Furnans, although she isn't entirely confident that her work will resonate with the polar ends of this spectrum. "I made a dance that I think I would want to see," she said, and in a way, the women approach their work like a flash of red satin folded into a kimono. While rebellion may not be distinctly overt, it is subtly layered into the work like an intentional smirk.

Joanna Furnans' Signifier premieres Oct 23-25 at Links Hall, 3111 N. Belmont Ave. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m.. Tickets are $10-18; visit linkshall.ticketfly.com . This is a shared program with performance artist Joshua Kent and his new work, WATCHING ME/WATCHING YOU. Learn more about Christine Wallers at www.christinewallers.com .


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