at the Dance Center

September 18 and 19, 1987

Clothes figure prominently in Brenda Way’s dances. Not fashion, but clothes–the clothed versus the nude body, the public versus the private person, and even the gestalt of laundry. Way, the founder and artistic director of ODC/San Francisco (originally the Oberlin Dance Collective), offered some intelligent but not always cohesive work, on this subject among others, in the three dances presented at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

The first, Laundry Cycle: The Long and the Shorts, turned out to be much as the title foretold–a clever exercise. The concept of laundry provides a comic structure; choreographer Way and the composers of the original music, the Bobs, work against its limitations in an often ingenious but ultimately rather empty and eclectic fashion. For example, Way provides an answer to the question: what are clothes like when people aren’t in them? Her dancers, in the opening segment, “Toss,” are limp, soft; one imagines them to be rather doggy in an amiable, smelly, friendly way. Wearing layers of brightly colored shirts, sashes, pants, and scarves, the dancers perform an asexual strip, doffing bits of their own clothing and relieving other performers of theirs as they tumble softly over each other and fall, in a remarkable resemblance to tossed clothes, to the floor.

In other segments, Way seems to ask the question: can laundry be sexy? In my experience the answer has always been no, but Way offers some interesting new possibilities. In “The Signs on the Line,” the Bobs’ lyrics suggest that a wife who wants to fool around can hang out the laundry in such a way as to warn or attract her man: “he’s coming home early” expressed in a red sock, for example. When the husband brings home a clothes dryer, it’s a disaster; the wife begs him to return it–she can’t deal with static cling. In the most successful segment, “Pounded on a Rock,” that primitive method of cleaning clothes becomes a highly suggestive metaphor for female insatiability. The featured dancers, Katie Nelson and Kenneth Kirkland, really mix it up; he’s tall and elegant, she’s small and strong, and she hauls him all over the stage.

But the dance gradually falls apart under the weight of its seven or eight clever but unconnected jokes. “Dictator in a Polo Shirt” has some inexplicable political content: a Castro-like figure who won’t appear in public because his polo shirt’s dirty; a corps in which each dancer wears two T-shirts, one red and one green, and flashes them alternately at the audience. And “Share a Load,” though it continues the sexual theme, provides only a weak, trivial ending for the piece: while the Bobs sing “you’ve got a small load, I’ve got a small load, let’s share a load,” the dancers form couples and mimic the start of a laundromat romance. These days unfortunate singles are being exhorted to “eat, drink, and do laundry!” but this piece comes off as neither satire nor celebration.

The Tangle, a 1986 work, is more serious. Four couples, in various states of dress and undress, each take a turn at “waltzing” (the music is all waltzes, many of them untraditional; the dancing resembles no waltz I’ve ever seen).

The waltz, generally a public dance, suggests sophistication and romance, and the opening segment fulfills that promise: the couple, Mae Chesney and Jeff Friedman, wear white silk pajamas and dance a la Astaire and Rogers. Immediately, however, the public performance is unmasked, as they reappear in their underwear. They no longer dance together, though they respond to each other; their movements suggest hostility, bitterness, and the wish to irritate and be irritated. When they snatch up their short, silky robes and put them on, it’s not to cover themselves but to erect a barrier. In a brief moment, perhaps five seconds, they repose together on the floor, embracing, but that’s followed, almost schizophrenically, by more quarreling. It’s an uncomfortable dance to watch.

The second couple, Maria King and Arturo Fernandez, have a more lighthearted relationship. Each is small and dark, and their dancing has distinct Latin overtones; they play to the hilt, for comic effect, the sexually aggressive roles their “tango” implies. Deeply engaged with each other, they engage the audience, in some of the most exciting dancing of the evening.

The third couple, Julie Kanter and Robert Moses Jr., offer a variation on the original couple’s perversity. Kanter is large, awkward, and passive; Moses, who’s black, has a moonlike face almost mysterious in its stolidity–his eloquent body and impassive face give him a presence that’s cool, even chilling. Their qualities are expressed, or enhanced, by an often-repeated single gesture: the man holds the woman’s head in a viselike grip that could be tender but is more likely cruel, while her body writhes away from him and from her own head, as if it were inhabited by an entirely independent spirit. At one terrifying moment, Moses not only holds her head but glances back over his shoulder at the audience with a cool stare suggesting complicity or challenge. This head holding, a very literal metaphor for what some couples do to each other, has an incredible visual impact.

The fourth couple, dressed in 20s-style garb, begin with a stilted, awkward ballroom dance. They evoke not only that innocent earlier decade but a very young couple on their honeymoon. And frankly, I found this segment about as exciting as a very young couple’s honeymoon: they may be having a good time, but it isn’t an occasion of general interest.

Way seems to have a penchant for burying her best material in the middle of a piece and saving for the end the most trivial. But The Tangle does have an interesting, unifying finale: all four couples come together onstage to perform variations on their earlier solo performances (for example, when Moses attempts to grasp Kanter’s head, she eludes him). Here the couples are more “dressed”: the formal bowtie merely draped around Moses’s neck before is now tied.

We’ve been brought back to the “public” realm–even the fact that all the dancers are onstage together suggests that–but there’s been nothing simpleminded or formulaic about Way’s conception of public and private. Rather, the piece is a kind of meditation on those concepts. For one thing, Way subverts our expectations by moving, not from the public to the private, but from the private to the public. (We tend to assume that “the private” is more real, but Way’s formulation surprisingly suggests the opposite.) Even the costuming blurs the distinction between public and private: Is King’s clinging black outfit a slip or a sexy dress? Is Kanter “dressed” or not in her silky pajamas? I would have liked to have seen this piece, tantalizing in its combined polish and suggestiveness, a second time.

The last dance, Prague and the Angels (Tamina), is based on Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Predictably grim, given the inspiration, the whole project seems mistaken from the start. Kundera’s experimental novel is much too complex for Way’s literal, narrative treatment. The slanted “wall” that Tamina and her husband clamber up and slither down, for example, is too obvious. And Way tries to incorporate all Kundera’s political, aesthetic, and spiritual concerns, in what is surely an impossible task. I often felt lost, and I’ve read the book; I wondered how audience members fared who hadn’t.

It’s not without its fine moments, however: the original score by Paul Dresher is wonderful, especially in the segment called “A Foreign Place,” in which the nauseating cacophony of sound is matched by the dancers’ desperate robotic flingings about; they’re like creatures animated by an electric current, hovering between life and death. In the final segment, “Island of Innocence,” Tamina is the only grown person on an island inhabited by children; her adult sexuality becomes the metaphor for her adult conscience and memory, opposed to the children’s horrifying blankness. Their reprehensible innocence is unexpectedly expressed in the fact that they’re constantly clothed, in white shirts and shorts; Tamina is the one who’s naked, who’s sexual and alive, if in agony.

Nelson, who plays Tamina, has a powerful stage presence. The simplest gesture–as when she draws her finger down the center of her face, as if dividing herself or canceling her consciousness–is eloquent. She has a wonderfully defined body–the best dancers seem to have pristine edges–but that alone isn’t it. She’s alive, in her face and everywhere else; there’s no censor, no deadness of the kind most people acquire in self-defense. When Nelson danced earlier in the program in the sexy “Pounded on a Rock,” she and Kirkland, who’s similarly charged, galvanized each other and the audience. These and other moments when the dancers truly connected (humorously in a tango, disturbingly in that ominous head holding) were the pulse points in an inconsistent performance lit by flashes of intelligence and wit.