at MoMing

January 15-17 and 22-24

People see live dance, instead of staying home and watching TV, for a couple of reasons: for one, dance concerts are–or most purport to be–more intellectually stimulating. But perhaps more significant is the element of risk. A dancer or choreographer could fall flat on his or her nose, literally or figuratively. It’s like watching the Indy 500 for the crack-ups. The audience doesn’t actively want the performer to fail, but the risk supplies an edge.

Likewise, no one goes to see “Dance for $1.98,” or even “Best of Dance for $1.98,” expecting polished performances. What we look for is work with potential, with an unusual texture or sensibility. And in MoMing’s recent “Best” performances (the sixth annual showcase of work by little-known choreographers culled from last summer’s program, with new dances added), what stood out were the interesting failures and the unexpected successes. Dances by Patricia DuChene, Barbara Magee, and Kris Eric Larsen were performed on the first weekend; dances by Anne Kuite and Darryl Clark made up the second.

The pieces that stood out most on the first week’s program were by Kris Eric Larsen. Here’s a choreographer who, for good or bad, lets it all hang out: it’s significant that Larsen, in both his works, performed a strip. The self-revelation in his work is aggressive: he may be awkward, he may be obvious, but by God he’s himself.

There were a number of odd features about Larsen’s work. Each piece started with a “dictionary” to establish the vocabulary of the movement that would follow. Choreographers often repeat gestures meant to evoke certain objects or ideas, but I’ve never seen anyone stand up at the beginning of a dance, do a little pelvic thrust, and say “phallus” (as Larsen did in Heart Phallus Foetus). And his dancing often isn’t like dance at all–there’s lots of ordinary walking, and lots of gestures that in their primitiveness and isolation suggest ritual more than evolved dance forms.

The ideas expressed in Larsen’s works were not especially complex. The Water Shifted, for example, was so obvious as to be almost embarrassing; in a dance announced to be about the traps of conformity and the difficulties of being an individual, the dancers begin by wearing masks and end in joyful freedom without them. All art tries to manipulate us, but here the contrast between the rigid first section and the playful final section was too stark to succeed. The message–that the language and ideas of the community can be reworked to suit the individual’s self-expression–was valid, but Larsen has no rhetorical gifts; it’s simply shoved down our throats.

Heart Phallus Foetus, Larsen’s premiere, was strange and clumsy but more provocative. Larsen, in a solo, impersonated these body parts to a score that consisted of whispered, grunted, and moaned words. The set was three screens covered with rather clumsy black-and-white drawings resembling anatomical prints. For the section on the phallus, the words included (among others) “bladder,” “stool,” “urinate,” and “piss” chanted over and over with different emphases and intonation. The effect was suffocating–I felt I’d been thrust into somebody’s gut. It’s strange–and a bit laughable–to see someone dancing to a voice whispering “capillary.” In fact both of Larsen’s pieces verged on the comic, but they also had a manic, and apparently serious, intentionality. If Larsen meant this dance to be humorous (and I’m not sure he did), it’s humor in Kafka’s vein–you’re not quite sure whether to laugh or scream.

DuChene’s dances were the smoothest of the five choreographers’ but also the least engaging. She choreographs to somewhat abstract, classical music (here Arcangelo Corelli and Philip Glass), and her style is dramatic: in Whisper Beach, her premiere, she and her dancers danced very much for and to the audience, their gazes boldly riveted on us as they moved about the stage. DuChene herself has large, dark, very handsome eyes, but this continual eye contact with the audience was unnerving, and not in a way I think was intentional. She seems to ask continuously for our approval, or to implore a response of any kind.

Magee’s dances are much more personal: sometimes offhand, sometimes almost angry, they often work against the music. Sometimes they seem serendipitous, perhaps because in one (Inside Out) she used children.

Both of Magee’s dances had an interesting, if enigmatic, emotional texture. Of the work by these choreographers, hers cried out most for a context, some narrative or dramatic structure to make the emotion less personal, more available to the audience. Her premiere, Alms, suffered from that lack: Suzanne Oliver danced, often in an angry or anguished way, to a lovely, intermittently sung folk ballad, “The Valley of Strathmore” (beautifully rendered a capella by Catherine Hall). Dance and song were laden with often conflicting emotions, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell what was the source of the conflict.

On the second weekend, Anne Kuite combined DuChene’s polish with Magee’s gift for conferring emotion–of the five choreographers, she showed the most promise, including the ability to integrate music, lighting, and quality of movement to achieve a single effect.

In Garden in Darkness, a solo for herself, Kuite created a whole environment and mood with a few simple strokes. The dappled lighting (which highlights by chance different body parts at different times); her spotted, sinuous costume; an erratic, modern flute solo; and movements that are heavily muscled but also finely detailed and articulate not only create an eerie mood but delineate a strange creature, both more and less human than we are. It was a little as if Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream had been brought to life as a lizard.

Semaphore, Kuite’s equally successful premiere, managed to create an entirely different mood: it’s humorous and playful, brightly lit and brightly colored. Music is supplied by a drum (played live by Michael Kirkpatrick) and a recording of what sounds like a square-dance version of Handel’s “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.” (Interestingly, Kuite makes a performer of her onstage musician: he occupies center stage for most of the piece, and he’s the first to walk on–he deposits his drum; walks off; comes back with a drumstick, which he examines as if it were some kind of martian artifact, then drops it; and finally returns to begin playing.) The message of the piece is simple but elegantly presented. Semaphore, like dance, is a visual language for the body. Both can seem excessively formal, rigid, or constricting, but under the right circumstances these languages come to life, become an instrument rather than a dead set of rules. Even the dancers’ bow–stylized, broken down into its components, and driven by the drummer’s beat–reiterates this message, but makes fun of it at the same time. The cheerful ironies of this piece, so much in contrast with the eerie, almost frightening atmosphere of Garden, highlight Kuite’s versatility.

Darryl Clark’s pieces are hardly dance at all–more like kitschy theater, or melodrama. Three Cowell Pieces features Clark in obvious interpretations of sections called “Crying Man” and “Ascension”; the third, “Finch (enuJnielebeG),” is wholly obscure. The other premiere, Chiffon Velvet, is performed to syrupy music (perhaps of the 50s) awash in violins, horns, and harps. It involves some problematic homo- and heterosexual relationships between five dancers, and culminates with all five scattered about in isolated, agonized poses, watching each other.

The creaky melodrama of Chiffon Velvet is leavened by no sense of humor; but in the 1987 Teen Anguish (presumably the dance that earned Clark his place in “Best”) Clark exploits similarly trite movements–although of a different era–for their humor. It was fun, at least occasionally, in this piece to see the dancers mug and lip-sync their way through music by Mary Wells, the Miracles, and the Shangri-Las.

A concert like this is nothing if not human, and many of its best moments were not choreographed: When Clark and another male dancer performed a pas de deux in Chiffon, their groping and fumbling had, unintentionally, some of the quality of a first date. When the two little girls in Magee’s Inside Out faced each other at one point and joined hands, I saw the older one breathe deeply, then blow her bangs up and away from her sweaty forehead, lower lip jutting. And when Larsen and his two dancers took their bow at the end of The Water Shifted, they exchanged a “We did it!” look full of relief, self-consciousness, and doubt. Here were people engaged with each other and with us–no mediation, no TV screen, and (in some instances) not even the conventions of art.