at the Theatre Building, October 8-10

In the past decade American dance and performance have taken on a very aggressive edge. Fueled by the politics of the Reagan-Bush era, the spread of AIDS, and a bloodcurdling anger over NEA censorship, performers of every ilk have been making art that questions, challenges, and confronts everything from the government to society at large. It gets a little tiring: aggressive confrontation seems the attitude of the day, and the day seems to drag on and on.

In this loud world, choreographer Julia Mayer McCarthy steps very lightly. Mayer McCarthy has shared bills with other choreographers at MoMing and Link’s Hall since 1988, and recently formed Detour, a dance/performance group. Her first full-length concert, at the Theatre Building, was quite notable for what it didn’t do, and a little less notable for what it did.

Mayer McCarthy’s dances are amazingly nonaggressive. It’s not as if she told herself “I am going to make nonaggressive dances”–that would be too aggressive. It’s more like she choreographs the way a person might timidly ask a question. All five of her dances (one jointly choreographed) have a tentative, delicate quality, as if she’s set up invisible boundaries for herself and wouldn’t dare cross them.

In her solo, In Broad Daylight, the floor is covered with her dress, a simple construction with a skirt 22 feet in diameter that flows off her body, across the floor, and over the edge of the stage. The dress decidedly limits her movement–this boundary is hardly invisible. But Mayer McCarthy doesn’t challenge it. As the lights come up, she’s kneeling center stage as a metronome ticks slowly and two video monitors present vividly colored images of clouds floating across an azure sky.

She moves her arms quickly in a circle by her head–a gesture of frustration. The video presents another rich image. She stretches her arms out to the side, as if she’d like to recline on the stage, but something prevents her from completing the act. Press information says the dance is about the pain, resignation, and confusion felt at the loss of friends, but resignation seems the key word. Later in the dance, when she does lift her skirt, slowly tucking it into her waistband, she moves with a languid heaviness. She could have danced with the dress: she could have kicked up her legs and let the fabric billow around her, she could have tried to run. She could have fought it. But she doesn’t.

You and Yours, the most engaging dance of the evening, has that same languid air. The dance opens with a woman (Marquita Levy) rolling across the stage like a tumbleweed to the wailing sounds of a lonely harmonica. She’s followed by another tumbling woman, then another (Hollis M. Johnson and Stacey Hurst). One by one the women walk in slow motion, looking about them with a fearful, searching air. Ultimately the three get caught in a conflict over who walks where, then slowly ease out of it by creating a rhythm they all adopt, first rocking together, then moving as a group. In the end they form a tentative community, zigzagging across the stage. Their movements together are betrayed, however, by the dancers’ facial expressions: never trusting, always on guard.

None of Mayer McCarthy’s dances has a sense of completion or resolution. That lack may be deliberate on her part, but it makes both You and Yours and In Broad Daylight a bit frustrating. There’s a struggle but no resolution, so ultimately it feels as if nothing really happened. Two other dances on the program, Shh (choreographed with Kathleen Hermesdorf) and Caught Her . . . Midswing, are both deliberate studies of incompletion: all the movements are interrupted, either by other dancers, as in Caught Her, or by the dancer’s own preoccupations, as in Shh. These works have a whimsical quality, sort of an “Oh my . . . interrupted again” tone. The dancers seem very patient–an unusual thing for the American stage. There’s a subtle beauty in this, but at the same time Mayer McCarthy’s patience is somewhat irritating.

We’re not accustomed to a lack of confrontation. We equate it with a lack of drama. We might even call it boring. But actually I think it’s something else. Mayer McCarthy has a perspective that isn’t admired in contemporary society. She has resigned, given up the struggle. But in doing so, she’s found moments of quiet beauty.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jill Salyards.