at the Dance Center of Columbia College

November 18,19,25, and 26

Lynda Martha, artistic director of the nine-year-old Lynda Martha Dance Company based in Evanston, has a gift for exploiting a single mood or movement idea in a given piece. Her dancers also move insistently with the music, on each beat, This single-mindedness can be very effective–but it can also be wearing.

Sticks of It, broken into sections called “Sugarless,” “Juicy Fruit,” and so on, best showed off Martha’s strengths, not only her steadfast attack on an idea but her lighthearted mix of modern and jazz dance. The music, by Jimmy Buffet and Sandy Owen, has a casual, ragtime feel, and the dancers move in an elastic, loose-jointed way that’s not only just like a stretchy piece of gum but evokes the gum cracker’s “who cares?” attitude. As the piece opens, we see the dancers in a relaxed, almost deliquescent pose, heads hanging down and arms draped over each other. Eventually they progress to a full-company bop, shimmying, shaking, and grinning. In between are sundry jokes (the man holds out his arms, the woman leaps–and sails past him with never a glance back) and star turns (tall, manly Lynn Brown was particularly loose and eager to please in the section called “Big Red”).

Sticks of It captures all the excitement of dancers moving to the beat, and it never gets boring. But occasionally it’s too cute. It’s unnecessary to have one dancer actually chewing gum, not to mention pulling it out in a long string. True, this sets up the stretchy quality of the movement, but it comes off as not much more than a cheap laugh. And when the woman leaps past the man’s welcoming arms, his shrug and grimace afterward are too much.

In Chrome, a dance for four women, Martha aims for and achieves something hard and metallic. The abrupt gestures, heavily muscled and nearly always to the beat, are mechanical, pistonlike. At first it’s exciting, as such movement can be, but as the piece goes on we tire of those kinesthetic punches–they’re not effective after so many repetitions.

Talk, a piece for the full eight-member company (Brown, Derek Clifford, Louie Miller, Katharine Sanders, Beverly Sikes, Karen Smith-English, Karen Traxler, and Robert Tuck), was Martha’s only premiere. It has some neat lighting by Lloyd Sobel and some very inventive music by Chicago composer Steve Rashid. But this piece, which is more theatrical and makes more of a “statement” than Martha’s other two on the program, is less interesting in terms of its movement.

It appears from Talk that Martha thinks there’s no such thing as a pleasant phone conversation, at least for a dancer–and maybe not for the rest of us, either. Not only are you trafficking in an inadequate medium–words–but you’re chained to one spot by an accursed mechanical device and deprived of the little flicks of the eye and twiddles of the fingers that can tell you so much about your interlocutor. In Talk, phone conversations may be a metaphor for today’s distanced, impersonal communication, but what’s certain from the dancers’ sometimes too literal facial expressions is that those conversations are full of gossip, irritation, bickering, and downright rage. There seems to be a tyranny in phone exchanges that irritates Martha. In one rather inexplicable section, for example, a “phone dictator” gives the other dancers contradictory orders in a blurry, official telephone voice.

Perhaps the most intriguing facet of Talk is Rashid’s score, which is made up at first of dial tones and rings and other phone noises. I thought at first that its lack of an insistent beat would mean more inventive choreography, but no such luck. When the music winds down, the dancers wind down. And most of the movement is as jittery and jangling as the music (with the welcome exception of a section danced to a jazzy instrumental–nontelephone–score). Because of its single-mindedness, Talk is ultimately too much like a boring phone conversation–you can’t wait for it to be over.

Sam Watson’s Sculptured Garden, the only work on the program not by Martha, confirms the brilliance of this Chicago choreographer. This thoughtful piece is slow and gentlenothing like Watson’s collaboration with Kenneth Comstock, Wired–but in no way is it mushy.

We’re told in the program that Watson’s dance was inspired by the sculpture gardens at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, so his interest in the static forms the human body can take is fully expected. But he also explores what makes the body not a sculpture, in a meditation that recalls Dr. Frankenstein’s fascination with the spark of life in his monster, that quixotic but profound difference between a corpse and a body that can move.

Not that there’s anything ghoulish about Sculptured Garden. It opens with the six dancers in a Pilobolus-like pose, like a fungus that on closer examination appears to be all human legs. Gradually the dancers disentangle themselves and, as they roll across the floor, we see them as a landscape of buttocks, calves, shoulder blades. Part of Watson’s inventiveness is his ability to make us see the body in a new way. In this case it’s simply a matter of rolling dancers in a light that brings the body’s curves into sharp relief; later in the dance, we see the same ability in some isolated gestures of the arms. Their rolling, swirling, and twisting make us see what arms are capable of, how they can pivot in their axes, elbows bent or straight, to slice the air in an almost infinite number of permutations.

In the final image, after the dancers have made themselves into yet another beautiful pile, they pull each other to standing one by one to form a line, holding hands, their arms fully extended. It’s like a tug-of-war, with human beings the rope. Earlier the dancers had seemed to experiment with gravity–the piece is full of leans and shifts of weight–but here that preoccupation is made fully visible. There is something static and sculptural about the line of dancers, but what you really see is that they’re not granite. The weight of different body parts varies–the proportion of bone to flesh in an arm, for example, is different from the proportion in a leg and that’s partly why these are not blocks of stone in human shape. But what really separates sculpted and dancing bodies is volition–the will to take that weight and play with it. And that has a human as well as a kinetic meaning.