at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 27 and 28 and June 3 and 4

To really take off dance needs a mystical edge. The audience must forget their hard seats, must not hear landing thuds as interruptions, must not see costumes as contrivances or props as distractions. Unfortunately for the choreographer there’s no formula and no amount of work that will guarantee that transcendent state in the audience.

Local choreographers Nana Shineflug and Mary Ward, who recently showed new works at the Dance Center of Columbia College, seem to share an interest in the mystical, making it the subject as well as (presumably) the desired end of their dances. Yet neither takes a solemn approach–just the opposite. They seem to ask: Can humor and mysticism intersect? What theatrical illusions can I exploit or explode to humorous effect?

One of Ward’s two premieres, Champagne, has the giddy exuberance of inebriation, your garden-variety elevated state. To sparkling, rippling music by Steve Reich, the three dancers (Beth Bradley, Brian Jeffery, and Ward) are suddenly spotlighted center stage, one behind another, flicking arms, hands, heads, shoulders, and the occasional leg or hip, each dancer in his or her own time to the music. This mostly stationary group looks like Siva turned party animal. When they then break apart, their dancing has all the energy and momentum but few of the actual moves of jazz dance–in fact Champagne plays on a certain kind of exhilarated social dancing closely related to jazz. As the dancers’ luminescent, satiny costumes catch and reflect the light’s subtly shifting pastel hues, the overall effect is sexy but not seriously sexual: despite the potentially divisive fact of a threesome, there are no hints of jealousy or of any other tensions.

This orgiastic vision of dance comes with no strings attached, yet the dance is not without texture. Ward occasionally slows way down and sways as though she is floating on top of the music, resting a little. And in a recurrent phrase, Ward and Jeffery join hands–at arm’s length–and then Jeffery reaches for Bradley’s hand in a slow-motion gesture that retrieves and includes her. Yet she had not been unhappy on her own; she bestows her hand with a gracefully retarded and exaggerated condescension.

Threesomes seem to Ward’s liking–at least in this concert. In Fallen Angels, her other premiere, she explores more fully the implications of a threesome–not necessarily the sexual implications, but how in a group of three, two so often end up pitted against one.

As Fallen Angels opens, a figure is disclosed downstage covered by a blanket. When the dancer (Timothy O’Slynne) wakes up–wearing Dagwood-style pajamas–he sees at the rear of the stage what appear to be two angels crouching (Jeffery and Ward). They are covered by voluminous satiny sheets that obscure everything but their heads. Even the music, a medieval-sounding chant, is celestial. Properly impressed, O’Slynne kisses one angel then cavorts before them as the two angels magically rise up to an impossible height above the floor.

In this first section, the nonangel is left comically in the dust, but in the second section a different dancer (Jeffery) is excluded. In fact he’s being smothered–those voluminous sheets have multitudinous uses–under a “blanket” by the two others. When the two disappear offstage, he’s subjected to a voyeuristic vision of a man and a woman, seated at a table, whom he sees only as distorted silhouettes thrown up and greatly enlarged on a scrim at the rear of the stage. The dancer seems both entranced and repulsed by this vision: he looks and turns away, looks and turns away as he dances, entrapped, in a bar of light center stage. In this dark section we remember that Satan and his gang are fallen angels.

The third section is humorous. It opens with all three dancers under a blanket, so far downstage that, sitting in the back row, I almost couldn’t see them. Then I heard people laughing, so I peered harder: sure enough, two suspicious projections were rising up from the covers, and as near as I could see, Ward grabbed both. As, a dancer in David Hough’s Ninja Ward had a little fun with some phallic imagery, but in Fallen Angels she really takes it to impossible lengths. Each dancer has one of the huge silky blankets used throughout, and the men twist theirs into long, lewd ropes which they twirl and caress and flick at the female dancer. This section pits the two men against the woman, but not in any way that suggests hostility.

To describe what happens in Fallen Angels, though, doesn’t really describe it at all–doesn’t begin to capture its magic. For that, a lot of the credit has to go to Ken Bowen for the imaginative lighting; to Mike Kirkpatrick for the way he manipulates and ultimately skews the music, turning it on its head; and to Ward herself for her economical, brilliant use of those huge silky bed sheets. There are aspects of this dance that I just didn’t get–what are the couple projected on the scrim doing? and why the film projection at the end? But they are more than made up for by the sustained mood of magic, by the stepping outside ordinary experience, and by certain marvelous effects: The way the light changes, for instance, as Ward and O’Slynne lift the billowing sheet over Jeffery’s head–from a hard metallic flash when it’s down to a soft, filtered glow when it’s up. And the way, as Jeffrey crouches then leaps beneath the billowing sheet, it seems to lift him off the floor like a dust ball. Even the dancers’ bow–such as it is–and their costumes–ordinary nightclothes–are perfect. Fallen Angels has something of the atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and also perhaps shares its pervading assumption–that what distinguishes humankind is its folly, its capacity to be bewildered.

Maybe it is possible to reach the sublime through the ridiculous, and maybe that’s what Nana Shineflug was attempting in Sufi Tales. We are prepared for the sublime by the program notes, which–partly because they reproduce the texts of all the tales recited as part of the dance–are so extensive they require their own booklet. Moreover, the point of each of the five tales is made crystal clear by an explanatory note, such as: “Sufis believe that life is just a curriculum for spiritual growth. That experiences are neither good or bad, but merely events that one uses for learning.” We are prepared for the ridiculous by Shineflug’s initial appearance onstage; decked out in Day-Glo tights, tank top, hot pants, and gym shoes, with ski goggles perched on her head, she announces that “each of us survives in their own way.”

There were things I liked about this dance: After Shineflug’s introduction, the lights came up again and six dancers whirled with outstretched arms magically extended by the short whips they held. I liked Shaun Gilmore’s deep voice and affecting delivery as she recited her part of the tale in “The Blind Men and the Mountain.” And I liked the dancers’ marvelously hackneyed gestures–the most worn-out moves of the jazz dance idiom–so appropriate to the section entitled “The Truth Is I Always Lie.”

But these good bits were overshadowed by whole sections that didn’t work: Shineflug arduously making her way from one end of the stage to the other by clambering across a rope ladder strung horizontally, while the dancers move in a procession bearing sparklers. Or the angel on roller skates in “Fatima the Spinner and the Tent,” who’s joined by Fatima (Shineflug) herself on skates throwing confetti. Moreover the live music–which was fine in itself, gentle and a little mysterious–however softly played was too loud, threatening to overpower the dancers’ voices. There is too much going on in Sufi Tales, too much that is discordant with the simple, straightforward tone of the tales themselves; in the end I found all I could see were cardboard wings, all I could hear was the whir of roller skate wheels.