at the Dancespace Performance Center

May 1 and 2

The dances of Christina Ernst and Sam Watson are collaborations on many levels. Not only do they choreograph many of their dances together, but their movement style fluidly combines the jazz- and modern-dance idioms. Their dances tread a delicate line between a throwaway lightheartedness and more serious, even spiritual aspirations. But that balance seemed threatened in their most recent concert, at the Dancespace Performance Center. A wacky, silly sense of humor dominates many of the dances and pushes the more serious elements into the background. Only one dance creates a workable compromise, merging humor and spirit.

In this new work, Prelude to a Kiss, two couples (Ernst, Watson, Richard Havey, and Rhonda Muffley) go into a nightclub, imaginatively evoked with big-band music by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans and with a diagonal shaft of light across the stage. The couples, dressed in tuxedos and black dresses, are at first stiff and formal, but then they start to steal glances at each other and flirt. A sequence of pretty floor patterns–such as a line of dancers moving in unison that changes into a circle with the dancers moving in and out–ends in an imaginative shape, each dancer in a back bend and laying his or her head on another’s knees. The couples take off their shoes, the men loosen their ties, and then they all launch into a series of technically dazzling routines. A lot of stage business follows–flirting, switching partners, riding piggyback, embracing–and finally the sweaty foursome leave the nightclub with their original partners, each couple engaging in a chaste kiss. The clowning and excellent dancing support a rather wise story: sometimes the prelude to a wonderful kiss is flirting with everyone else.

One of Ernst and Watson’s signature pieces, Color, seems the perfect example of a shift away from serious content. The dance’s original metaphor, of two primary colors combining to create a new color, is used to describe the give-and-take of relationships. But the original blue, yellow, and green lighting that conveyed the metaphor was eliminated in a 1991 restaging, and a clownish duet for Judy Austin and Havey added. Now the dance seems to be about the struggle between the clownish couple and a serious couple (Ernst and Watson). The serious couple’s movement is composed of gorgeous extensions and crackerjack technique and set to forgettable new-age music. The clownish couple’s movement is literally slapstick–they slap each other and roughhouse, and in one striking moment Austin stands on Havey’s shoulders as if she were on the top of a mountain. When Ernst and Watson reenter the dance, also in clownish costumes, the tomfoolery becomes even more foolish; the accompanying music is sampled cartoon sounds. The point seems to be that seriousness should give way to clowning. The coda returns briefly and unconvincingly to the serious couple’s lyric movement; but the transition is so abrupt that rather than express an organic development it seems to say “Oh, we should be serious now.”

On the other hand, Ernst and Watson’s serious side can be too serious, as shown in three serious but not sufficiently insightful duets. Rope, choreographed by Kate Kuper and Ernst, uses a length of rope to tie the two dancers into knots as a metaphor for knotty relationships; at its abrupt end, Muffley pulls the rope out of Ernst’s hands, terminating the relationship. Ernst’s duet Relationship develops the theme of difficulties in relationships but places it in a mother-daughter context. Ernst cradles a passive Muffley, placing Muffley’s head on her shoulder. Muffley starts to break away and throws herself into tantrums. After Muffley alternates between passivity and tantrums a few times, she genuinely breaks away to circle Ernst in a series of leaps and turns. Suddenly they reverse roles: Muffley takes care of Ernst, placing Ernst’s head on her shoulder. The final, odd image is Ernst pulling Muffley’s hand over her womb; they stand heroically as the lights dim. Ernst does not show why the mother and daughter roles have been reversed, or what the new relationship is, so we are denied the pleasure of a real resolution.

The middle duet, Watson and Havey’s Routine, is a technically strong, straightforward, and engaging jazz-dance routine that inexplicably flirts with metaphysical dualities. The costumes on the dancers’ right sides are gray pants, yellow vests, and black shirts, but on the dancers’ left sides they’re brightly colored tights and a black shirt. The bright patchwork of colors lends the costumes a harlequin brightness but also seems to refer to an unexplained conflict of character. Nenah Cherry’s funk music is played both backward and forward, repeating without explaining the theme of duality.

Also on the program were two older dances. The brief Toy Suite is inspired silliness; Austin and Muffley hold noisemakers that moo and baa when they’re moved, while Watson and Havey wear small tambourines all over their bodies. The men beat out a rhythm with grumpy expressions on their faces, while the women make party noises. Badum Boom is a high-energy jazz dance to a 1957 percussion score, “Savage Drum Fantasy”; Austin, Havey, Muffley, and Watson spin and leap until in the end they drop theatrically to the ground.

An excerpt from the troupe’s Muzak series called Muzak in the Grocery Store is, as the press release promised, “the company’s latest highjinx.” It seems to be an advertisement for an upcoming dance; out of context, this excerpt comes across as mere hysterical silliness.

Many of Ernst and Watson’s contemporaries are also struggling to find ways to combine humor and serious intentions. Akasha (the name means “spirit springing forth” in Sanskrit) originally created spiritual dances; but recently the company has given itself over almost entirely to joke dances, presumably because humor sells well. Xsight! Performance Company’s manic humor has always had an element of danger and anger that has given it some depth. But Ernst and Watson’s sense of humor is entirely silly, with no possible new direction but greater degrees of hysteria. Somehow Ernst and Watson need to find new ways to fit humor, spirit, and good dancing together, as they did in Prelude to a Kiss.