Bindis and Bruises, Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s latest offering in their 15th season, aims to shed light on issues of domestic and dating violence, with a specific focus on the Indian-American community. Conceived by Priya Narayan, directed by Ellyzabeth Adler, and co-choreographed by both, this piece combines theatre and dance to empower and unify audiences to take a stand against domestic violence and find hope for a better future. The evening of dance and theatre is rounded out by another piece, Encuentros, inspired by the writing of Eric Fromm and his three stages of love. The juxtaposition of budding romance and domestic violence could prove potent, were it not for some inconsistencies in both pieces.
While Bindis and Bruises and Encuentros are programmed as a sort of “double header,” the evening actually begins with a nine-minute video featuring founder and artistic director Ellyzabeth Adler discussing the company’s fifteen year journey. The video expresses CDE’s commitment to social justice and describes how they have grown to serve close to 5,000 students in the Chicagoland area. While well-intentioned, it belabors some of these points, and there are some technical issues in the video that, when paired with its almost ten-minute running time, undermine the message. From an informative standpoint and from an entertainment perspective, a more focused, concise, and professional introduction would have better served the audience.
Alas, this will be the pattern of the evening.
Encuentros, the first dance/theatre offering, is presented by Sildance/AcroDanza Project, and begins with a brief rundown of Eric Fromm’s work to provide context to the piece. I don’t believe such direct address is necessary, since poetry by Lani Montreal is read aloud at various parts of the performance and helps orient audiences better than the monologue presented with some odd audience interaction and the pretense of a “survey.” Dancers Silvita Diaz-Brown, Carlos Lopez, Christopher Knowlton, Ingrid Larson, and Tatiana Cira Sanchez are committed to the choreography. Each couple shows skill when performing a series of elaborate lifts and balances which suggest the synchronicity that occurs when two individuals fall in love, but the repetitive and abstract nature of the choreography becomes a bit wearisome after the fourth or fifth time. Images juxtaposing being in love with the act of flight are particularly exciting the first time around, but lose their effect as the piece drags on. Montreal’s poetry swings between simply and effectively providing texture to the dancer’s movements (“Giddy in love, giddy for love”) and resembling the overwrought imagery in a middle school creative writing class (“So you pound and you pound on my marshmallow heart, thinking it would not bruise.”) The music, by John Lawrence Geary, is the highlight of Encuentros, as it subtly embellishes tone and mood.
Bindis and Bruises tells the story of Dr. Sita, a psychologist and victim of domestic violence, who sets out to help women in the Indian-American community who may also be facing similar problems. Bindis and Bruises‘ diverse ensemble features Alexandra Elam, Shalaka Kulkarni, Brittany Harlin, Susanna Hostetter, Jillian Leff, Sara Maslanka, Ana Martinez Medina, Priya Narayan, Maren Rosenberg, and Lucia Mier y Teran. The goal of this piece is admirable, and the multiracial ensemble of ten women is to be commended for their work; however, from an artistic standpoint the piece lurches between moments of dance, scenes, and monologues without much logic other than the fact that the piece is advertised as dance theatre. Like Encuentros, the music is a stand out in Bindis and Bruises, mixing a variety of ethnic styles without becoming too emotionally overt. Some moments of staging are quite effective: a percussive ensemble dance after a story of sexual assault, the symbolic tearing of a shirt, and a montage of women in sexualized advertisements evoke a broad approach to the subject. The brief moments of stage combat ring true, and the tossing and turning figures of women under white veils are just as disconcerting and effective. Other aspects of the piece, such as stilted dialogue, flat line deliveries of an off-stage male, and typos in projections serve to undermine such accomplishments. Ultimately, the disconnected nature of the narrative reduces many opportunities for nuance to surface-level sketches, rather than fleshed out scenes that dig deep into the underlying cultural, religious, and societal roots of domestic violence.
In the end it all comes down to execution. The goals of Bindis are admirable, as is CDE’s commitment to a socially conscious blend of theatre and dance. However, for a company with a rich, 15 year history and projects that have been in development since 2012, it doesn’t seem unfair to hope for more. While there are glimmers of artistry in each performance, you can’t help but leave wondering how much more effective each show would have been with more polish.
Encuentros runs Mar. 4-12 at 8pm, while Bindis and Bruises will run Mar. 4-19. Both pieces are presented by Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble at The Auditorium at Ebenezer Lutheran Church (1650 W. Foster). Tickets are available for $15 in advance or $20 at the door, with discounts for college students and seniors. The performance is free for high school and elementary students, although content in Bindis and Bruises may be unsuitable for small children.