MoMing Dance & Arts Center

July 15, 16, and 17

This second week of new choreographic works at MoMing provided frustratingly disappointing fare. The six pieces tended to wander aimlessly and often endlessly. The artists, while exploring interesting ideas and intriguing images for the most part, seemed unable to structure their impulses, and the result was disparate, nondirectional performances.

Of course, these were untested works intended to undergo further development. They should not be held to the same critical standard as finished, professional work. If I linger on the evening’s shortcomings, it is in the hope that my observations will help the artists to reexamine and strengthen their art.

Undoubtedly, the most intriguing offering was the elaborately orchestrated and near-hallucinogenic Pisa, staged by Emily Knowles. Pisa began with the mesmerizing image of a young girl in a pastel dress and white Mary Janes walking onstage dragging an enormous plastic fork behind her, while a disembodied female voice intermittently barked “Left!” Next to appear were two young hipsters carrying on an outlandish conversation composed entirely of such single words as “art,” “religion,” “politics,” and “ethics,” while the empty frame of a butterfly chair slid slowly by. Then an older gentleman reciting “one two three–one two three” waltzed onstage. The child with the fork reentered and tripped the dancing gentleman, who spilled to the floor in a charmingly unsuccessful attempt at slow motion. Its tone established, the piece continued.

What made this collection of bizarre events such an unbridled hoot was the thoroughly ungraceful way in which Knowles presented her performers. They clunked and bumped their way around the stage. Even the sliding chair frame skittered unsteadily by, producing low moaning sounds as it rubbed against the dance floor. Planned effects were impossible to distinguish from mistakes, giving the piece a farcical, giddy tone. At my favorite point, a woman on roller skates dressed in an otherworldly black-and-white cardboard costume reminiscent of the Dada performer Hugo Ball rolled onstage and repeatedly dropped a book on the other performers’ heads.

But while Pisa charmed me with its physical humor, I was frustrated by its thematic incoherence. The piece introduced too many incomprehensible elements, such as a man on a soapbox reading cue cards and selling flags and a young woman lecturing on the construction of a new cathedral in the city of Pisa. Instead of building on one another and adding to the lunacy budding onstage, these bits weighted the piece with confusions. The piece collapsed in on itself, unable to support so many fractured images.

Another intriguing piece that toppled under its own weight was Scatterbrain, choreographed and performed by Sheldon B. Smith. Smith, dressed in a gray T-shirt, gray shorts,. and black high-tops, galumphed around the stage with beautifully controlled gawkiness. His over-six-foot frame was put through the most graceful of gestures–the slow lowering of an open hand to the floor–and the most awkward of lunges. At one point he bounded backward as if trying to catch a pop fly, his body all knees and elbows. As a kind of pacing device, he would intermittently stop everything and casually walk offstage, only to be tossed back by some ludicrous offstage force.

Most impressive about Smith was his overwhelmingly appealing presence. He exuded poise and confidence. Unfortunately, Scatterbrain held only a limited number of gestures and rhythms and they were exhausted after ten minutes. The dance then degenerated into repetition. Late in the piece, some of Smith’s own original music was introduced, but it tended to flatten rather than heighten the performance. The irregular internal rhythm of the first half of Scatterbrain, which had been created through the sounds of Smith’s sneakers squeaking on the floor and his occasionally labored breathing, was usurped by the all-too-regular rhythm of Smith’s beat-laden music, and the dance was suddenly made much less complex and engaging.

The big question mark of the evening was the dance Disappearance, choreographed and performed by Catherine Pines and Bryan Saner. While the two dancers sensually and hesitantly grabbed onto one another, putting themselves through a series of unconventional couplings, two vignettes played themselves out in voice-over. The first involved Eric and Carla, who communicated only through their answering machines and constantly missed each other. In the second, an unnamed couple talked over dinner about such things as the preciousness of their home videos and the attractiveness of trying to make oneself disappear. This tenuous subject matter was echoed onstage, as the dancers seemed to be groping for one another, trying unsuccessfully to fit into a comfortable configuration.

I found it difficult to judge how well the dancers accomplished what they intended. Certainly the performers set themselves a difficult physical task in moving through a demanding routine all the while in slow motion. Each waver and missed connection was highlighted. I read the lack of precision as sloppiness, but it might have been intended to resonate with the hesitant, self-conscious communication of the voice-overs.

Cast, choreographed and performed by John Hoffman, took narcissism to new heights. Hoffman began the piece writhing nearly naked on the floor next to a platform on which a black suit was draped. To the accompaniment of breathy music and an unintelligible text, Hoffman erotically put on the black suit and then took it off again, revealing anew his remarkably muscular body. It was like a slow-motion film of a male exotic dancer in the Parachute boutique. Hoffman certainly demonstrated impressive physical control, at one point quietly walking away from the audience as his hands shook frenetically. But a piece so dependent upon the exploitation of one’s own physique borders dangerously upon self-indulgence.

Man’s Desiring, choreographed and performed by Dennis Wise, was singularly forgettable. While Wise flung himself around the stage in gym clothes, half-mimicking basketball maneuvers, he narrated a story about a school superintendent and his two sons. I found it difficult to understand most of what Wise said, and his movements seemed utterly pedestrian, as if he were doing whatever he felt like. I was baffled by the whole thing, reaching bottom when the superintendent ended the piece by proclaiming “I don’t like the Kennedys. I don’t like their morals.”

Finally, Similar Orbits, choreographed by Lynn Brown and set to Talking Heads’ “Listening Wind,” was the most “dancerly” piece of the evening. Five women and one man gracefully pranced about in three sets of couples, performing a routine filled with generic modern dance moves. The most memorable aspect of Similar Orbits was its predictability: rarely was a movement introduced that I hadn’t seen a few dozen times before. Certainly the dancers, although often out of sync with one another, demonstrated a nice sense of ensemble. Laura Gould in particular performed with rock-solid confidence and unwavering control. But the piece, like so many music videos, was a rehashing of overworked gestures and images that have lost their fascination for me.