Gregg Lizenbery

at the Dance Center of Columbia College November 3-5

“Men Dancing” is almost an oxymoron. Imagine John Wayne, or even Robert De Niro, dancing. Add the fact that it’s men dancing solo, and the equation seems even more unlikely: if a man is alone onstage, what does he fight with?

The answer, in Gregg Lizenbery’s evening-length formulation, is: himself or the air. Lizenbery dances the solo works–some complete, some excerpted–of eight male modern-dance choreographers, ranging from Ted Shawn to today’s superstar, Mark Morris. So “Men Dancing” is a great educational opportunity. But this evening is a labor of love, not just an animated lecture. Lizenbery’s expressive dancing goes a long way toward making “Men Dancing” seem not only intelligent but a good idea.

The nine dances, arranged basically in chronological order, are introduced by “stage manager” Thom Benedict, with some help from Lizenbery, in a narrative written by Deirdre Towers. Several things rescue this format from its dangerous proximity to the “You Are There” style of instructional films. One is that much of the “information” imparted is pretty much beside the point–we don’t really need to be told that men had long hair in the 60s, or that Hitler did bad things to the Jews in World War II. Then too, the narrative–in both substance and presentation–is often tongue in cheek. My favorite bit was a pseudointellectual discussion in fake British accents about Shawn and his progeny, videotaped and shown on an onstage TV. Finally, the evening avoids the boring rhythm of slide shows. Lizenbery has varied the length of the dances and narrative bits, and sometimes the dances follow one right after another.

“Men Dancing” doesn’t address just the cognoscente or the dance newcomer. It’s pitched at a level that’s accessible and interesting, in different ways, to everyone. And that’s partly because we all know–or think we know–a little bit about men.

Lizenbery’s selection of dances naturally casts men in a certain light–and he chooses a part of the spectrum that shows them at their most likable and human. There are surprisingly few leaps or other shows of strength or bravura here. Instead of the obvious, what ties these dances together is a meditation on this question: If men aren’t being “men”–that is, emotionally contained–then what are they? How does a man dance and remain “masculine”?

The earliest choreographers here–Barton Mumaw, Ted Shawn, and Jose Limon–seem essentially to take men as the culture defines them. All three choreographers favor, especially to open their dances, men in a simple, dignified walk. Nevertheless, the pieces selected for these three seem increasingly introspective and “feminine” as they proceed from one to the next.

In Mumaw’s The Banner Bearer (1936), the first dance on the program, the dancer flourishes a long, narrow banner that cuts the air like a knife–the male version of Loie Fuller’s manipulation of gauzy billows under light. If Fuller’s dances show the convolutions of the female, Mumaw’s show the simple lines and straightforward force of the male. In Shawn’s “Solvent,” a section from Kinetic Molpai (1935), the moves are heavily muscled, and the dancer pushes and then relaxes, moving the air about in what looks very much like hard work.

“Folding and Unfolding,” however, also from Kinetic Molpai, begins with the dancer in a much more “womanly” pose, languishing on the floor, and is in general softer and more emotional. In Chaconne (1942), Jose Limon uses the chaconne form to make a point about modern man. The dancer still looks strong and determined, but all his gestures are arrested–they don’t flow as the music does, and that makes him look troubled. The dancer alternates between a macho walk, arms curved back and hands cupped near the hips in readiness for a fight, and prayer. He alternately attacks the space and embraces it.

But “Men Dancing” is not a simple progression from “masculine” to “feminine.” The next dance, Strange Hero by Daniel Nagrin (1948), takes a new approach–Nagrin solves the problem of “masculinity” in dance by parodying the male stereotype so unmercifully that it emerges bloody and battered. This is a portrait of a thug: the dancer, in trench coat and beat-up fedora, moves to an itchy rhythm, punctuating long, slow, stealthy glides with occasional bursts of aggression, gestures that may be as small as a flicked cigarette or as big as a vicious kick. This is no celebration–Nagrin shows us, in the manner of Robert Browning, the dark side of this personality. At first openly sadistic, the dancer eventually gets–and seems to welcome–as good as he gives. It appears that to be part of the male pecking order, a man must be as masochistic as he is sadistic. It doesn’t make for a pretty picture.

From this point, Lizenbery alternates introspective and parodic dances. Murray Louis’s male solos from Figura (1978) show an Eastern influence in both music and movement, but strikingly open and vulnerable moves are often closed with a militant self-protective gesture. Donald McKayle’s Twilight (1987) lets us see inside a man who’s exhausted, and possibly in despair. At first he sits defeatedly on a chair, but then suddenly he raises all four limbs, stiff and straight, like a shout to heaven, his belly hollowed out, in a gesture that epitomizes vulnerability and supplication. Moments later, he overturns that chair, and its four legs reach for the sky as the dancer’s limbs had. The upended chair, the upended dancer, suggest the underside of man, anxious and needy, as does the final gesture, a small rubbing together of the fingers.

Perhaps the high point of the evening is a parodic dance, Karl Schaffer’s Fad (1984). This metadance, full of paradoxes and dead ends (and injokes that I won’t spoil by telling), laughs at the critics, laughs at the audience, but laughs most of all at itself. It’s the funniest, most likably arrogant dance I’ve seen, and Lizenbery does a magnificent job of looking cynical, bored, and confused all at once. The concert closes with Mark Morris’s insouciant and musically inventive I Love You Dearly (1982). Morris’s tender regard for dance, which allows him to both explode and exploit its beauty, makes a fitting final statement before the evening’s unexpected coda.

I did have some quibbles about the selections–certain omissions and gaps seem unaccountable: Where were Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor? Why was there no dance selected from the period between 1948 and 1978?

But what’s impressive, in part, about this solo concert is that Lizenbery so nicely subverts the potential egotism of solo dancing–especially solos in which the choreographer and performer are one and the same. He shows us the essence of the dancer’s humility, which is to reshape himself, his body, to meet the choreographer’s vision. And the incredible versatility that Lizenbery’s choices require is based on a technique so clean it’s like Emily Dickinson’s chilling “zero at the bone.” Still, technique isn’t everything–and despite Lizenbery’s lively, educated, and articulate torso, ultimately it’s his balding, fuzzy head that has brought these dancing men, living and dead, to life.