Bob Eisen | Interview

The Chicago modern-dance legend and Links Hall cofounder talks nasty mirrors, Russia and bad habits.

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When Rochester, New York, native Bob Eisen moved to Chicago from Atlanta in 1971, he landed in a scene centered around long-gone groups Body Politic and the Dream Theatre. Their mime and Grotowski physical-theater methods triggered an interest in dance, and, in 1978, Eisen was one of three artists who founded Links Hall. Ahead of his performances at Dance Shelter Thursday 7 and Friday 8, I caught up with him by phone at his Manhattan apartment, where he lives when not on the road or in St. Petersburg, Russia.

How did Russia become your second home?
I’m not exactly sure. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and the myth of Russia and, well, it’s just an interesting place. I’ve been studying the language and the more I go there and have conversations, the more it opens up a whole ’nother world.

What’s the occasion for this visit?
When Nana [Shineflug and the Chicago Moving Company were performing] in Mongolia last April, I was in Russia at the time and they invited me. I’m dancing and traveling [this spring] and always like to come back to Chicago. And I need to. I own a house there. I have friends there.

Why did you leave?
My identity was very tied up with Links Hall. There were wonderful things about that, but it was very limiting in a way. I certainly gave up a lot. I went from a place where I was somebody to a place where, in a lot of ways, I’m nobody. Chicago was a once-in-a-lifetime thing and I’m very thankful for it…but [moving] has allowed me to reinvent myself, as much as one can reinvent himself.

You’ve recently danced solos almost exclusively. Why is that?
In a perfect world I’d be happy to make up dances [for others] but, for one thing, it costs a lot of money. If I had wanted to keep making dances for people I would’ve stayed in Chicago, because I had the space to do it and knew the community there. Part of me misses it. I’ve been dancing by myself a lot and it gets a little lonely. But part of me doesn’t miss it at all because it’s…hmm. It’s too crazy.

Do you still practice aikido?
Not since I left Chicago. I practice yoga, Alexander [Technique], Continuum [Movement], take a ballet class at the YMCA, dance by myself.… It’s more of a mix. I’ll be 65 in November. One has to take that into account. There are times where I’m doing a very aikido sort of movement that comes out of me studying it for 20-some-odd years. But it’s the same thing with ballet and modern dance. It’s all grist for the mill.

How do you direct yourself?
Yeeeah. Part of the problem with doing solos all the time is, I get lost and can’t see myself except in those nasty mirrors. I’ve got a friend coming by today to watch, in fact. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s a valid piece of movement.… I’m aware that I have movement habits and…some of them have their charms and some don’t. I really don’t care at this point. I’m not asking anyone to give me a lot of money, I’m not subjecting people to two hours of me dancing, and I’m certainly not out to impress any funders. [Dance] feeds me. I keep pushing and working and I’m very disciplined. I’d like to think that that resonates with people.

Which habits don’t you like?
I fold in at the shoulders. I’m a tall guy and I have a tendency to drop my head forward, not just in dancing but in walking down the street. I have to pay attention to these things. I do this dance stuff and one day it feels great. You do the same stuff the next day and it doesn’t. There’s no end to this battle, there just isn’t! The moments of pleasure are fleeting and God knows they don’t last very long.

Do you document your work in any way?
I’ll write down as best I can some phrase I’ve done if it seems interesting. If I don’t write it down, there’s a good chance I won’t remember it. But a lot of it is just recycling stuff that my body does nicely, and trying to find an interesting context to put it in. Like [Merce] Cunningham said: “Context is everything.”

When did you first see his work?
It was in the early ’70s at the University of Chicago, and I can’t say that I really enjoyed it but, somewhere along the line, I became a fan.… I’ve certainly been influenced by chance operations and other ways he did things. Whatever the dice rolled, whatever the I Ching came up with, he just said yes to it. There wasn’t a searching around for something better.… It’s a nice way to live. Just say yes to everything.

Do you keep up with the Chicago dance scene?
I’m on the Links Hall mailing list and sort of know who’s who…but there’s a whole crop of people I know nothing about. And they know nothing about me.

Bob Eisen performs at Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Thursday 7 and Friday 8.

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