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Life's a Beach 

Company Chaddick reinvests modern dance with animal sensuousness, darkness, and joy

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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Out of the blue, choreographer Cheryl Chaddick's rabbit died last week. Buster had gone into the vet's for a routine something or other -- nothing he hadn't undergone before -- so Chaddick was aghast when the doctor called to tell her that he was dead. Shocked, she shut off her phone and ignored her e-mails, then she buried her pet.

So it was no surprise that when I walked in on the Company Chaddick rehearsal the next day at the San Francisco Dance Center on Seventh Street, Chaddick looked up at me blankly. She hadn't gotten the message that I was to be there. But the open-faced, auburn-haired choreographer is a 17-year veteran company director who's been in the business since she left college; being caught off guard by a journalist wasn't enough even to ruffle her feathers.

Chaddick is a vivaciously wry, no-nonsense dancer with a Texas twang. In spirit, she's a descendant of a mid-20th-century generation of choreographers and teachers who, in choosing dance, chose a path that took them almost as far outside ordinary society as a circus once took its performers. These were the teachers -- like Martha Graham and Margaret Craske (of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet) -- who could elucidate a treacherous spiraling rise from the floor, or demystify the exacting geometry of fouetté en tournant (a whipping action of the leg as the body turns), all the while talking about the benefits of drinking apple cider vinegar to keep one's weight down and of the high incidence of Virgos among dancers. They were not intellectuals, although they were often brilliant. They weren't businesspeople, either, even though they had to run financial operations. They were artists with mystical leanings who told endless stories of other dancers, performers with plenty of folk wisdom and a near-religious belief in movement.

Chaddick studied ballet, jazz, tap, and various forms of modern dance at Southern Methodist University, then came to the Bay Area more than 20 years ago. She blends a variety of personae in her day-to-day life, from Earth mother and practicing psychic to cowgirl and sensuous feminist. She says that she makes dances out of visions that come to her, images whose meanings are partly visible although the movements that fulfill those meanings often are not. These visions are different from the pictures she sees when she dons her psychic's hat and performs a spiritual reading for a client. In that line of work, she sees snapshots of situations and people. As a choreographer, on the other hand, her visions are more ghostlike and unformed, and a single specter can nag at her for as long as two years. When she turns it into dance, the haunting stops and the vision disappears.

Following the events of 9/11, the vision that came to her was of a balmy beach, one she imagined would be somewhere in southern Europe, like the French Riviera or the Costa Brava. The dance she created from that image, Liquid Gold, set to bossa nova and samba tunes, is ironic and dreamlike, like one of Dennis Potter's song-and-dance numbers from the British television series The Singing Detective.

"After a couple of months, I just could not relax, and -- I'm sure this was true for everybody -- I just felt so on guard all the time. Then my mother had a bad freak accident that was so shocking to me. My life was full of stress and strain and so full of disillusionment that the piece came out of the desire to be in another country.

"I've never been to the European beaches, and I so wonder what it's like. I fantasize that you sit in a state of being where you are not thinking before and you're not thinking past the present moment. It's you and your body and the Earth and the sun."

She conjures up that pleasant, amniotic state as soon as her dancers step across the gray floor. Dawn Robinson and Jose Ibarra, for instance, ripple and melt together like hula dancers in slow motion, and several beats later, Blane Ashby and Katie Aagen get swept up in the same lusty phrase. Finally, Iorevic Rivera and Chaddick herself are lured into the canon pattern, in which their silky movements echo the others' through strict counterpoint. The effect is of a luscious breeze or an undulant wave warmly buffeting the dancers and calmly soothing the viewer; at the same time, the piece draws an oddly narcissistic portrait of human physicality. Life, Chaddick seems to say, is a beach.

The Sendoff, another premiere, was inspired by Chaddick's and her childhood friends' families. It's a witty depiction of a large, enmeshed tribe and its vicious attitude toward a lone outsider. Chaddick, who's old enough to be the parent of some of her youngest dancers, assumes the role of Mom, carving out relationships to her children with detached unconsciousness: She holds them while looking beyond them, walks as they attach to her leg, and ignores them as they leap onto her back. In her wake, barely seeming to touch her, flows a churning sea of need, jealousy, sweetness, and near-chaos. The kids battle and scrap; Mom hardly notices.

As a choreographer and dancer, Chaddick veers between the sociological and the personal, between narrative dance and pure movement. But whether she's commenting on the busted dot-com gold rush (as in her 2001 dance Hard Drive) or designing the concert's one insouciant jazz romp, Flying Home, she reinvests modern dance with animal sensuousness, darkness, and joy. In the process, she gives voice to Martha Graham's words: "Movement never lies. The body is a very strange business."

About The Author

Ann Murphy

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