at the Joel Hall Dance Studios

July 11 and 12

Yes, it was a good idea. Joel Hall opened his second-floor studio last Saturday and Sunday night, plopped some benches and chairs on one side, shone some lights on the other, called it a stage, and presented the work of independent choreographers. If the dances hadn’t been so appealing, it might not have seemed such a good idea–given the hot, muggy night, no air-conditioning, poor sight lines. But for the most part the dances were wonderful, and the audience kind of danced down the stairs on their way out, feeling that the evening had been well spent.

Who wouldn’t feel like dancing after seeing Malika Moore’s Caribbean, a hand-clapping, jazzed-up version of traditional African dance? Maria Lanier-Gandy, Kirby Reed, and Vanessa Truvillion came on and literally shook their necklaces off to Michael Williams’s hopping bongo playing. All three are trained jazz dancers, and they mix Afro-Caribbean rhythms with a sleek, sexy jazz style beautifully.

Unlike much postmodern dance, most of the dances here had a strong emotional base–I couldn’t help but compare them with the Steve Paxton solo improv I’d seen Friday. Paxton, the founder of contact improvisation and one of the first postmodern choreographers, was technically impressive but not very interesting beyond that. He’s been performing improvisational dance for at least 20 years, so even though the movement is new, the act of improvisation is not. His movements seemed rote, like word processing or working the assembly line. The performers at this showcase may not have his reputation, but they seemed a lot more excited about their work, and that made the work a lot more exciting.

Paula Frasz’s poignant duet Still Life, August Tye’s Level 21, and Lanier-Gandy’s The Wall depend on strong acting skills. Frasz’s Still Life, danced to Scarlatti’s sensuous Sonata in E Minor, is the most poignant of the three, exploring the loss of a loved one through a duet between Frasz and Marisa Lerette. Frasz slowly rolls onstage embracing Lerette, limp and seemingly lifeless yet with her eyes eerily wide open. She awkwardly manipulates Lerette’s body, rolling her around her torso, slinging her upside down over her shoulder in a futile attempt to revive her. Her movements are tender, caring, and filled with a gentle sadness.

Another poignant study of futility is Lanier-Gandy’s solo The Wall, danced to Tracy Chapman’s disturbing a cappella “Behind the Wall.” Truvillion sits alone facing the corner of a black and gray brick wall. Chapman’s familiar lyrics begin–“Last night I heard them screaming . . . “–as Truvillion rolls her head and sways backward, reaching out and grabbing hold of nothing. Truvillion dances with an aching, gut-felt sincerity in this short, simple piece.

Overall the dances were refreshingly accessible. No pretensions and no masked meanings, though at times their messages were almost too simple. Lanier-Gandy’s presentation of male-female relationships in Yin/Yang is a bit too obvious to be interesting. Tye’s Spirit Trail also does not probe deep enough.

But Tye’s longer Level 21 is a fascinating exploration of feminine strength. Amy Bearden, Alexis Gearhart, Aimee Tye, and the choreographer, all wearing identical French braids and black spandex shorts and cropped tops, dance with a sense of defiance, a uniformed troup of noble women fighting some unknown menace. They dominate the stage with directed leaps and powerful leg swings, though they also never lose their vulnerability.

Abiogenesis Movement Ensemble opened the evening with two sections from Angela Allyn’s Fanfare to Frank Lloyd Wright: The Organic Man. The first, a serene, graceful Asian dance, is inspired by the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo; the second is an exuberant expression of awe at the Guggenheim Museum, danced to music by the Talking Heads. The sections seemed unfinished, a little raw and underrehearsed, so I’m reserving any comment until the completed work is performed.