at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

July 8, 9, and 10

The dancers featured on the first weekend of MoMing’s annual “Dance & More for $1.98” seemed to answer the call, “Tell me a story.” Dance, ways of moving, was not the focus of most of the six works. Two could hardly be termed dance at all–hence the “& more” in the title, added in this ninth year of the program. And yet all the works were linked by their emphasis on narrative–spoken outright, or evoked by costume, mood, and generally spare movement.

Tea in the Sahara, by recent Columbia College graduate Katja Brown, began the evening with a rather simple tale convincingly danced by Brown, Nancy Baumgarten, and Elizabeth Spatz. As El Bakkar’s reedy, nasal, Egyptian-flavored music begins to wind about, the three women, in long white skirts and high-necked white blouses, step gingerly onstage. Their prim looks are in uncomfortable contrast to the exotic music and its feeling of heat and mystery, but they seem enthralled by the scenery (invisible to us). One begins to dance, and the others, shocked, stop her, yet soon they are all twisting and spinning giddily, as male voices wail passionately along with the sitar and congas. But it is the Sahara, after all, not a garden party, and they’re horribly overdressed. The music stops abruptly; we hear relentless winds sweeping across the dunes as the women stumble across the stage, half-crawling, panting, pulling at their blouses, hiking up their skirts, until they collapse in a heap, arms outstretched, perhaps toward some mirage. That’s what happens when you go to the desert looking chic.

The second piece was termed “movement theater” in the press release–the solo performer, Karen Hoyer of Partners in Mime, didn’t appear to have any dance training but did put on a captivating, energetic mime show. She’s a comical-looking person to start with–Twiggy-thin, with a short, curly mop of hair and a wide-eyed, open-mouthed smile. She begins Present Tense, Past Imperfect, created with Sigfrido Aguilar, lying in bed–except that the bed is a sheet-covered board set perpendicular to the floor, so she is actually leaning up against it, balancing on one foot as she tosses and turns as though she were prone. Clever. Suddenly she awakes, crying, “My book!” Failing forward to the floor, she begins a circuitous, sometimes crazy, series of images. She becomes an astronomer, hunched and squinting into a telescope at the moon; then she pulls the moon down and eats it in hungry gulps. Falling back against her bed, she yelps, as if from a nightmare: “Mommy, the man ate the moon!” In this manner she runs about the stage, causing us to recall periodically that she is searching for her “book” (her own writings? someone else’s? or a search for herself?). She may pause for a few seconds in one persona, only to drop it for another when the first one’s brief tale has been told. The piece is fragmented and often plain silly; it would have been a dizzying mess were Hoyer not such a whole-hearted, uninhibited clown.

Joseph Holmes Dance Theatre member Darrian Ford and JHDT instructor Winifred Haun teamed up in Long Lunch, the danciest piece on the program. To the rippling gentility of Fasch’s Concerto in D for piano, Ford and Haun engage in a pesky competition, trying to outdo each other with cartwheels, high kicks, and fouette turns. The dancers make comic use of their differences in size–he’s square and smallish, she’s tall and leggy–and yet the evenness of the choreography and its execution were the most enjoyable aspects of this piece. The dancers had the time to warm up for the blistering grand finale–one segment was repeated three times to three different tempos and moods. In the waltzier section, Haun and Ford whipped themselves into a fever of fouettes and pirouettes, each upstaging the other with “Yeah? Watch this!” smugness.

Hexicon, choreographed by Krista Willberg and performed by Willberg and Randy Cummins, is only borderline dance–which didn’t really matter for this program–but it is also borderline art, which matters whatever the circumstances. All of the activity is confined to a nine-foot-high, six-legged metal tepee, which the performers use as a jungle gym of sorts. When the piece begins, Willberg is alone inside the tepee, hanging suspended like a possum. She grasps two bars and flips over backward in what we used to call on the playground a “penny drop.” The score, “The 4th World Volume #1” by John Hassell and Brian Eno, lent the picture a primitive air, as did Cummins, who has a dark, shaggy mane, when he appeared bare-chested. After Cummins clambers up the outside of the tepee to join Willberg inside it, he uses her back, shoulders, and head as stepping-stones to reach the pinnacle. It was disturbing to see him make use of her in that way, and to see the obvious mating scene that closed the work–another drop in the “dance as sex” bucket. The tightly restrained movement, completely focused on the prop, left me feeling claustrophobic and cramped.

The most obvious story-telling piece, Julia Mayer’s solo On Husbands, was influenced and accompanied by a short story by Marilyn Stablein. The story, which opens with the line “They have no word for husbands there,” details the writer’s observations on marriage in a non-Western society. The movement is defined by a short series of sharp, angry gestures: snapping the fingers, slapping the thigh, dashing the forearm horizontally under the chin as if it were an ax severing the head. Over and over this series is replayed, with the same intensity, the same fixed, pained stare, so that one soon stops watching the dancer and focuses instead on the story. It is an interesting tale, which surely could have given rise to a more complex dance interpretation.

The final piece, Samsara, the Wheel of Life, is shrouded in mostly obscure imagery yet has a dramatic, even epic sweep. It is performed by Abiogenesis, a “movement ensemble” (why movement and not dance?) composed of choreographer and founder Angela Allyn, Doris Difarnecio, Christine Lesser, Jules O’Neil, Yvette Rodriguez, and Shelley Wilson. The music is by Jean Michel Jarre, except for a stretch by an unknown musician. One after another, the six women, naked, their bodies and faces powdered, roll backward across the stage, nearly hidden in clouds of billowing smoke. After the wave of bodies disappears offstage, the women reappear in loose dresses and turbans. Projected on a screen behind them is a newspaper photo, magnified, focusing on a poor woman’s frozen cry, her fist raised; others like her are in the background. The dancers crouch and stumble before this image, seemingly overcome by their burdens and oppression. Three fall; the other three drag them offstage. One woman resists and gets away, but she is subdued by another.

Now a slide of crashing waves is projected, and more smoke pours across the stage. Three of the dancers are in individual boxes with seethrough plastic sides. The boxes, on casters, are pushed about by the other three dancers, who are dressed like astronauts in plastic bubble helmets and white jumpsuits with long, floppy sleeves like vacuum cleaner hoses. The dancers in the boxes begin to struggle as they are moved–their hands flatten along the sides and tops of their enclosures as they try vainly to escape.

Do the ridiculous-looking spacewomen symbolize oppressors in general, imprisoning and manipulating the oppressed? Is the piece a doomsday message–what the Western powers’ relationship with the third world will be like, or is like now? It wasn’t clear. Few of the evening’s stories had happy endings, but this one was undoubtedly the most disturbing.

A different program of “Dance & More for $1.98” will be presented July 15-17, with works by Sheldon Smith, Dennis Wise, John Hoffmann, Lynn Brown, Emily Knowles, and Bryan Saner and Catherine Pines.