at Link’s Hall, October 29 and 30

The starting point for a choreographer–especially a choreographer of modern dance, which doesn’t have the set vocabulary of ballet–is her own body: what’s easy for her as a dancer, what’s hard, how she likes to move are the bedrock of whatever dance she creates. And for a choreographer just starting out, who often has little money or prestige to attract dancers, her own body is often not only the source of her ideas but their testing ground and final proof.

At a recent concert at Link’s Hall, Dardi McGinley’s and Pam McNeil’s dances were unmistakably the products of their own movement styles. McGinley’s oldest work on this program, Tigerbutter, a solo she danced herself, seemed most characteristic. She’s very young and strong and springy, with an explosive style that can give her dancing a stop-start quality, one burst of movement–cartwheel, jump, or turning leap–after another. In this dance she plummets sideways to the floor, then springs to her feet so quickly you’re not quite sure she fell at all. But the concept that apparently underlies Tigerbutter’s frenetic movement is weak. A TV at the center of the stage plays a video (by Rick Dascher) that alludes to the Little Black Sambo story of the tigers that were turned into butter by racing around a tree. Video images of tornados and dancers whirling like dervishes hammer home the idea of the force of circular movement, and McGinley does circle the TV, but the idea doesn’t seem to go much beyond that.

The same forceful movement informs McGinley’s Davy Jones’s Locker, a solo danced by Jenny Stang. Seagulls on a tape and Stang’s oldfashioned bathing costume establish the watery setting, and the initial movement–Stang lies flat out, then skitters forward and scoots back several times–suggests being washed by waves across the ocean floor. Here McGinley varies the energy level more, reining it in for phrases that are slower and quieter: a slow-motion stepping back with legs flung out to the side, for example, while the dancer gazes hollowly at the audience. But at other times Stang’s intense, dramatic movement–she tosses herself to the floor, suddenly drawn into a fetal curl like a pill bug that’s been touched, or runs, stamping–seems dictated more by McGinley’s style than by the concept of the dance.

McGinley’s The Artful Dodger is a duet in which she and Stang seem doppelgangers, with their conspiratorial looks at each other and almost-unison looks over their shoulders at a threat we can’t see. Something about this dance–maybe the lack of music or other accompaniment–suggests an artist’s sketchbook. It’s as if McGinley were branching out from her own natural style, trying out half cartwheels instead of whole ones and experimenting with odd poses and gestures: half squatting with a foot on the knee and holding it there, running a hand down the calf, smoothing the hair back in elaborate slow motion. McGinley still relies for impact, however, on the kind of quick, forceful movement at which she excels: the leap into the other dancer’s arms that opens and closes this piece, for instance.

The problem is that McGinley’s dances don’t seem to go anywhere–it’s almost as if in each of these three works she’s decided to illustrate a familiar image or story and just left it at that. Clearly a strong dancer, she needs to explore, both kinetically and formally, her own movement and bring those explorations to bear on her subject.

Pam McNeil also relies heavily on her own natural movement style, but she has a better sense of how to make a dance develop. In her premiere, a solo called A Child’s Room, she uses props–a big basket and lots of stuffed toys–and a sound collage (by Mitch McNeil) of a toddler talking and singing, rock music, and sound tracks from children’s movies to establish the setting and move the dance from point A to point B. Gathering up the toys, tossing them out of the basket, then gathering them again express McNeil’s momentary dissatisfaction with her motherly role in this dance; the rock music provides a brief opportunity to express her sensuality, sinuous arms turning into cradling arms.

McNeil’s natural way of moving is almost the opposite of McGinley’s: she’s as fluid as McGinley is explosive, as economical with her energy as McGinley is extravagant. I found McNeil’s liquid, circular phrases pleasing, but in A Child’s Room they’re a little too unvaried and polite to express much. The dance almost ignites when she sits in, then spills out of the empty basket; but the tumble is too decorous, and McNeil doesn’t elaborate on that little bit of dramatic and physical risk.

McNeil’s delicate sense of drama and her flowing movement are perhaps better suited to a trio called Cold, Quiet Sky, a moody piece set to a Kurt Weill song. Here Julie Hopkins, McNeil, and Catherine Oster interact gently, with quiet pushes, arms around each other’s waists, and subdued lifts. Much about the dance suggests introversion–a dancer retreats to stand facing the rear wall, or a seated dancer curls into herself, head on her knees. Formal contrasts–McNeil often sets one dancer off against the other two–give the occasional inwardness some drama and texture. The music, which shifts from time to time into agitated keening, also helps provide a structure and emotional progression, which McNeil exploits in a sudden, sharp image at the end in which two of the dancers embrace and the third hovers over them.