George Piper Dances

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, February 26-28

LinkUp Choreographer’s Showcase

at Link’s Hall, February 20 and 21

First-rate companies and choreographers understand the language of contemporary culture as well as of dance. As two recent programs demonstrated, dance forms from modern to ballet can use TV and film references to help audiences notice how the world moves.

London-based George Piper Dances is ballet’s answer to Monty Python. The same offbeat humor informs everything from the company’s moniker (there is no George Piper–it’s an amalgam of the founders’ middle names) to its deliberately amateurish videos, shown between dances, chronicling the performers’ adventures on bus tours or in the bathtub. At the same time, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt–known as the Ballet Boyz because of a BBC documentary on them–and their three fellow dancers are doing work even more demanding than classical ballet because it’s speeded up or performed backward or has no musical support. Being accessible doesn’t mean being simpleminded, as Nunn and Trevitt showed in the three pieces on their program at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

It opened with William Forsythe’s 1984 quartet Steptext, set–if somewhat erratically–to a Bach chaconne. The piece begins in total silence as a single dancer moves into a spotlight, plants his feet, and does a solo with arms and torso alone. Suddenly a bar or two of music blares out, whereupon he stops dancing abruptly and walks off. In the silence that follows, a ballerina performs similarly constrained moves until she too is interrupted by the music–suddenly Bach has become the equivalent of the vaudeville hook, dragging performers off the stage. Eventually the music and dancing coincide, but still the movements contradict expectations. There’s the traditional prima ballerina but the “corps” consists of three men; they partner her expertly yet she always ends up oddly contorted, hooked over a knee or behind a hip instead of perched elegantly and traditionally on a shoulder. One man leaps Baryshnikov-style but in double time, so he looks like one of the Beatles in the time-lapse sequences of A Hard Day’s Night. The moves are funny and yet beautiful and gracefully executed. Nunn and Trevitt also engage in a series of identical maneuvers that might be outtakes from the Marx Brothers scene where Harpo mirrors Groucho’s moves. And whether or not you realize the men are folding and unfolding their arms in a parody of the Russian dancers in The Nutcracker, you can enjoy their classical virtuosity.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Mesmerics (2003), to selections by Philip Glass, is cerebral and accomplished without being self-important. (The video that precedes it is like an old-fashioned short before the feature.) This time two women join the three men. Again the dancers reflect both one another and familiar cultural images, particularly in one move where spread legs and windmilling arms suggest Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of the Vitruvian man. Like Forsythe, Wheeldon too offers truncated ballet moves–it’s as though he’d choreographed a piece entirely from discarded or interrupted figures from some other dance.

After intermission and a second video, Nunn and Trevitt perform Russell Maliphant’s Torsion (2002). Dressed in what look like prison jumpsuits, the men appear in two different squares of light, one upstage and one down. Some of their parallel moves suggest people facing each other through the bars of their cells; others are more strikingly reminiscent of the mimed tennis game at the end of Antonioni’s 1966 Blowup–perhaps the height of English absurdism.

The Boyz’ work is so charming and so well-done that it seems churlish to complain about its lack of substance. But midway through each piece my attention began to fade, as the intellectual point had been made and no underlying emotion had emerged to sustain its repetition. This, too, may be a comment on conventional ballet, but it’s also a weakness of cerebral dance. Without passion, even sex is just repeated pounding.

The dancers–Hubert Essakow, Oxana Panchenko, and Monica Zamora as well as Nunn and Trevitt–deserve credit for sustaining the momentum despite any redundancy in the choreography. Their performances suggest a nondance analogue: the piano playing of Victor Borge or PDQ Bach, who show how skilled you have to be before you can act as if skills don’t matter.

Film references likewise enliven Jyl Fehrenkamp’s The Raft, which opened the LinkUp Choreographer’s Showcase at Link’s Hall. In a parody of synchronized swimming, dancers garbed in yellow bathing caps and the 1920s swimsuits of Mack Sennett comedies stand onstage waving their arms breaststroke-style or holding their noses as they crouch. Once they begin to weave Busby Berkeley patterns, it becomes clear that this is a full-blown Esther Williams movie, one of those Technicolor spectacles on water skis with sparklers arising from the briny deep on the heads of women whose makeup remains perfect.

Then there’s a pause, as though to change reels, and the focus shifts to a rubber raft stage right where one dancer lies sleeping. A gray cardboard fin zips along the floor–and suddenly it’s “Jaws: The Dance.” One of the synchronized swimmers disappears in a cartoon ocean; she comes up once, twice, and finally vanishes forever as the comic sound score (by Matt Shadis/the Colonel) reveals its debt to John Williams. Kudos to costumer Jeff Hancock for his toothy felt-and-cardboard shark. The other dancers get consumed only to reappear as formless white floating things suggesting both ghosts (Les sylphides?) and the shark’s leftovers.

The concept, dancing, and design are delightful–and, truth be told, stronger than the choreography. Fehrenkamp’s moves tend to be overliteral, so that swimming looks like swimming instead of a dancerly extrapolation of swimming. I salute her determination to be accessible, but she could probably trust her audience to grasp the story without all the underscoring. Still, as capably danced by Rachel Bunting, Mary Chorba, Lucy Vurisic-Riner, and Fehrenkamp herself, The Raft floats instead of sinking, displaying plenty of good-humored wit.

Sarah Haas’s Breathing Still, though lovely in places, also suffers from excessive literalism. A meditation on Falun Gong–whose exercise has been repressed in China–it includes far too many gestures and poses: the dancers cover their mouths to keep from screaming or clasp their hands to keep from reaching out. An earlier, shorter version was more moving: extended to 15 minutes, the piece has become more didactic than emotionally powerful. Mary Chorba’s solo Mountain Pass, which she performs herself, and Becca Hopson’s quintet Somnambulism were simply unengaging. Maybe a bit of comedy or a few movie references would have helped.

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