This weekend at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Chicago-based dance theater company Lucky Plush melds two art forms.
“The Better Half” is the latest piece from Lucky Plush, a group known for its commentary on contemporary culture through a combination of movement and technical theatrical elements.
“I have a lot of fun looking at a pop culture phenomenon and kind of unpacking it and turning it upside down,” says Julia Rhoads, founder and artistic director at Lucky Plush.
But even for a group that has a reputation for testing the boundaries — in 2009, the Lucky Plush piece “Punk Yankees” explored the idea of ownership in a digital age — ”The Better Half” is a new kind of collaboration.
“This particular piece is really a unique hybrid,” Rhoads says. “There is even more of a theater component to it ... This piece leans more into character development in a way I haven’t done before.”
In addition to its blend of dance and theater, Lucky Plush also incorporates the use of Internet and video humor in “The Better Half.”
Rhoads, who has a background in contemporary dance, teams up with co-director and creator Leslie Danzig, who works mostly in physical theater and clowning, to bring “The Better Half” to the stage.
The show examines the roles we play in our lives and how much those roles are self-selected or chosen for us. The production centers around one couple and incorporates several movie scripts, primarily the 1944 film “Gaslight.”
“Gaslight” is the story of a man who convinces his wife she is going insane in an effort to cover up his own dark secret. The period piece, which takes place in the late 19th century, is marked by a prominent theme at the time — hysteria among women.
While “The Better Half” is not strictly based on the movie, Rhoads says she and Danzig both liked the idea of “starting with an original piece and adapting it into a theatrical piece.”
“This particular narrative is pretty thin,” Rhoads says. “It created a pretty strong springboard.”
“It’s a very formulaic plot,” Danzig adds. “There’s a villain, the victim ... it’s a thriller.”
Once they had their framework, Rhoads and Danzig had to create a story combining the two art forms, or “languages” as they call them — dance and theater.
“The biggest challenge working with the two forms is not compromising either,” Danzig says.
“Dance should never be illustrative of a theatrical situation. ... [And] the theatrical form shouldn’t be relied on to just move things along and further the plot,” Danzig says.
But Rhoads thinks the two directors have managed to find a careful balance.
“It borrows as much from dance as theater,” Rhoads says.
Although the two creators found it easy to collaborate with one another, classifying their final product is a bit more difficult.
“It would be challenging to classify what happens [on stage] because it happens so organically,” Danzig says.
“It’s not a real linear story; it’s not like a play that just unfolds,” Rhoads says.
While “The Better Half” borrows language from scripts like “Gaslight” and other films, the show doesn’t have a traditional script itself.
“It actually doesn’t feel like a plot in the conventional sense,” Danzig says. “The script becomes a sequence more so than a script of dialogue.”
Instead of scripted lines, Danzig says much of the actors’ dialogue comes from improvisation.
“Dialogue shouldn’t be used simply to explain something,” Danzig says.
With a piece seemingly so complicated even its creators have a hard time describing it, what is an audience supposed to think of a dance-theater collaboration?
Rhoads says she hopes “The Better Half,” like all Lucky Plush productions, gets her audiences to consider new perspectives.
“I’m interested in dance audiences coming in and seeing dance that is technical,” Rhoads says.
Danzig expects “The Better Half” to elicit different reactions from different audience members.
“I think if we went from audience member to audience member ... there would be variation on interpretation,” Danzig says.
“Audiences are being asked to work between the forms ... I think it’s an awakening experience.”