“There’s such a mystery about who we are and why we’re here.” Jan Bartoszek is not talking about epistemology, but ancestry. Bartoszek is deeply interested in how identity is shaped by history—both personal and collective—and, in the case of many Americans, its absence. For the past twenty-four years she has probed the subject by way of her acclaimed company, Hedwig Dances, now in its sixteenth year of residency at the Chicago Cultural Center. The investigation continues this week at the Ruth Page Center with “Earthly Tongues,” Bartoszek’s latest abstract, yet highly theatrical creation.
“‘Earthly Tongues’ is about mystery,” Bartoszek says. “It digs into the past and projects into the future.” The piece is roughly chronological, starting in a distant, mystical past. Elaborate headpieces, by costume designer and Redmoon collaborator Tatjana Radisic, obscure the dancers’ faces, suggesting a forgotten past that must be pieced together and reinvented. “A later sequence is a sort of deconstructed folk dance that we’re trying to learn, or find,” Bartoszek says. “Folk dances contain stories, images of everyday life: planting, harvesting. There’s humor in it, too.” As the dancers move into the present, their faces are revealed and voices heard. They discuss what they know of their individual origins. At one point, a dancer pipes in with “I don’t know and I don’t want to know.”
“Like many children of immigrants, I don’t know my family before my grandparents. There’s lost memory beyond that generation. Sometimes you look in albums or hear stories that may resonate with following generations, but there’s a mystery of continuity—the genome that connects us with the past and is alive in the present.” “Earthly Tongues” is part of a larger series on memory and history. The next piece, “Dance of Forgotten Steps,” is a personal exploration of Bartoszek’s own family.
Bartoszek believes dance is a singularly effective tool for exploring the obscurities of identity and memory, by virtue of its abstraction. “Dance is to theater as poetry is to prose,” she says. “The audience can bring their own experience because it works within metaphor much in the same way poetry does.”
This isn’t to say Bartoszek eschews the power of narrative and theatrical elements. Video projections by Petra Poul Bachmaier of luftwerk create direct images of aging generations on the dancers bodies. The layered, imaginative costumes by Radisic evoke fantastical periods past and an evolution to the present. The music, by Stone (Winston Damen) captures, as Bartoszek says, “a human dimension of traveling in time—without being too specific. I try to find collaborators who can join in with ideas and brainstorm with me. I’m blessed with people who are engaged with the same ideas.”
It seems Jan Bartoszek is surrounded by like minds, as Hedwig Dances enters its sixteenth year as Company in Residence at the Chicago Cultural Center. “It’s wonderful to have a home, especially one as beautiful as the Cultural Center,” she says. Hedwig Dances offers a series of professional development workshops each year in the Cultural Center space, and shares it with DanceBridge, a program offering emerging choreographers and companies free rehearsal space and performance opportunities.
In addition to organizing and mentoring with DanceBridge, Bartoszek, along with Sarah Best, curated last year’s Dance for the Camera event, a new annual program hosted by Hedwig Dances in partnership with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. “It’s become a whole new genre of dance,” she says. “We have an upcoming film for this year as well.”
Next year is the quarter-century mark for Hedwig Dances and the company hopes to find a venue in New York to celebrate the anniversary. Guest artists and teachers will be invited to collaborate with the company. “I’ve become more focused on collaboration over the years,” Bartoszek says, when I ask about what she has learned from her years with Hedwig. “I’m trying to get away from formality and find the essence of the idea. To get at the content of the work and let that drive creation of the movement.” Ultimately, collaboration fuels the work. “I’ve got such a wonderful group of performers. I think ‘Earthly Tongues’ will resonate with audiences. It will be in a language people will understand. Even though it isn’t spoken.” (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Ruth Page Theater 1016 North Dearborn, (773)871-0872. This production is now closed.