Phil Martini

at the Dance Center of Columbia College

June 21-23

During rehearsals for the concert “Improprieties” at the Dance Center of Columbia College, one of the dancers stood onstage while the lights were being adjusted. Bored, he started to strike dramatic Martha Graham-style poses. The other dancers teased him, shouting “Angst. Give us some Graham angst.” The dancer, the youngest member of the company, didn’t know what “angst” meant. The other dancers teased more, saying: “You call yourself a modern dancer, and you don’t know what angst is?” The choreographer, Phil Martini, cut short the teasing. “Good,” he said. “Now you have the chance to become a good modern dancer.”

Dramatic soul-searching has been the stock in trade for modern dance since its beginnings with Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Mary Wigman. What would modern dance be like without angst? Martini’s “Improprieties” gives some initial answers.

First of all, it might be humorous. Royal Family is a satiric look at the British royal family. The drunken queen mother keeps falling to the floor in a stupor. A flirtatious princess never met a man she didn’t like. Chuck and Di always try to steal the spotlight from each other. The queen herself, played by spark plug Eileen Sheehan, is a ridiculous martinet, as well as a strangely tragic figure caught inside her role, as much marionette as martinet. Betty Kas, as the queen mother and flirtatious princess, showed herself a lovely comedienne.

Court Masked is a send-up of an Elizabethan court masque. While a harpsichord plays, a romantic triangle degenerates from stately manners to a brawl in which the characters rip most of their rivals’ clothes off. It ends with a slow dirgelike figure, the characters gathering their tattered clothes and dignity around them and leaving the stage with their heroic romantic attitude more or less intact.

Modern dance without angst can still be dramatic, as shown by Mary Would Like a Life, Please. Mary (Sheehan) takes the stage in a spotlight downstage center for a poignant and humorous monologue about growing up. She says, “We’re really not any different as adults than we were when we were 12 years old; more experience and knowledge, but no different.” A fairy-godmother figure, danced with a leprechaun’s grace by John Hoffman, shows her three fantasies about what her life could be. A minister (Scott Lee Allen) changes from a puppet who reads scripture in a high, thin voice to a sinister figure who pushes a woman worshiper (Lezlee Crawford) to the ground several times. The worshiper turns away from him to a wild young man (Martini) playing air guitar to a rap gospel song; he eventually seduces and abandons Mary. A brainless married woman (Kas) who boasts about her 87-cubic-foot refrigerator is at the core of the last fantasy. Crawford as the woman’s daughter is also a good comedienne, in the Carol Burnett style. The finale for the whole company, to the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight,” leads Mary past all of her fantasies to start living her life. The final image of Mary, in the midst of a crowd of pedestrians, is lovely. This pop psychodrama dance attains several images of real dramatic power.

The piece that follows modern-dance conventions most closely is Without. Four dancers (Allen, Crawford, Sheehan, and Hoffman) in black unitards move to minimalist music by Ennio Morricone. Press materials describe the piece as a young man’s struggle to accept his own death, and the effect of his struggle on the people around him. (Part of the proceeds for the concert went to the AIDS Alternative Health Project; the cause of death is easy to guess.) But this theme is difficult to grasp from the dance itself. The overall impression is of grave, slow movement. The young man’s anguish is not angst, because the dance focuses on the outer world, the man’s relationships to others. Perhaps the dance’s personal nature prevented Martini from communicating his idea clearly; if so, he would be following a long tradition of unintentional obscurity in modern dance.

All of the dances employ movements from the standard vocabulary of modern dance, such as leg attitudes, pirouettes, and swinging falls. Ballet movements are used for comic effect, and jazz movements for excitement. Martini is not at all the proper post-McLuhan artist–he makes no attempt to invent movements. Rather than investigate the medium of established movement, he simply uses it to communicate his messages.

The dancers themselves were young, undisciplined, and enthusiastic. Their enthusiasm worked well in this concert of dramatic story-dances, and their expressiveness improved during the concert’s short run.

Martini replaces one of modern dance’s dominant concerns–introspective self-expression–with satiric wit, clearly communicated stories, and well-observed characters. “Improprieties” is an entertaining evening of dance with a good heart.