at the Auditorium Theatre, October 14-17

Certain pieces of clothing clearly transcend their practical function: I’m no slave to fashion, but even I can recognize the beauty of luxurious materials put together in an elegant way. Eliot Feld’s dances (on view recently at the Auditorium Theatre, for the first time here in several years) reminded me of gorgeous clothes. He comes up with these breathtakingly fresh, perfect phrases, then cuts them up and sews them together in ways that are exactly right, varying them spatially by changing floor patterns and orientation to the audience and temporally with unison or canon movement, slower or faster tempi.

The body Feld clothes is music, and in the 26 years he’s been making dances he’s clearly developed an instinct for choosing cleverly and concealing and revealing cunningly. Take his approach to Bach’s Brandenburg concerti in Common Ground (1991). This is beautiful but familiar music, a kind of god in the pantheon of “classical” works and firmly identified with the 18th century. But for his piece Feld has devised a signature phrase with clear origins in jazz dance: an angular one-two tossing down of the arms (one teacher used to tell us about a similar phrase, “Pretend you’re throwing your gum on the ground”) and cocking of the hips. It looks 20th century, it looks American (shades of West Side Story: Feld danced in both the Broadway and movie versions), and somehow it perfectly suits the staccato bursts of notes in the first movement of the third concerto. The men in Common Ground, hopping in arabesque, kick back, and somehow that kick perfectly punctuates the music’s overall rushing force.

Common Ground’s multiple beauties are grounded in Feld’s unerring instinct for phrases that suit the music in unexpected ways. In the second section the women swing their hips back in a big, luscious circle; nothing about the movement genuinely resembles swimming, and yet it recalls that dreamy, slow-motion labor, just as the music does. In the third section, an excruciatingly slow duet, the woman, seated in the splits, grasps the man’s legs and pulls herself almost through them while he steps slowly forward; and in an odd way their painful, delicate progress fits the music’s sad, devotional air. In the fifth section the women walk stiff-legged on pointe, sometimes with their legs wide and thrown out a bit from the hips, which makes them look both birdlike and hyperconscious and brings out the music’s tender, musing quality. Often Feld ingeniously distorts classical steps or line, just as his dance brings Bach’s music into clearer focus by viewing it through the prism of the 20th century.

Skara Brae (1986), with its suggestions of narrative, is odder but musically just as engaging. A program note informing us that Skara Brae was a Neolithic settlement abandoned in haste for unknown reasons 5,000 years ago suggests the dance will somehow clear up the mystery. It doesn’t, but I liked it anyway.

Feld seems to see women as central to the ancient society of Skara Brae. In the first section especially they’re tied to nature and wild, thrusting one arm into the air with splayed fingers so they look like trees or stags. But in the second, when the men walk onstage leaning as if into a stiff wind, the women are obscured, sitting downstage and barely raising their torsos, heads, and arms above the floor in motions that make them look like waves. And in the third a male-female couple wear red-tinged, perhaps bloodied costumes; their duet is stiff and ceremonial, as if she were a deer he’d just killed and was carrying home. In two later solos this woman (Julie Stahl)–the only one who dances with a man–is contrasted with another (Daniela Panessa): Stahl looks troubled, and Panessa looks centered and intuitive, strong and tender. But whatever Feld’s point may be, his imaginative reconstruction of a long-ago time is lovely, with its suggestions of the sea and wind, of the solidarity of a foreign community, and the brilliant way he clothes the traditional Irish, Scottish, and Breton music.

Feld dresses the Stephen Foster songs of Doo Dah Day (No Possum, No Sop, No Taters) antically. It’s strange to see this sweet, sentimental music so clownishly garbed, but Feld has good reason for it: the dance (billed as a preview) savages the myth of the “darkie,” taking us from cruel stereotypes to the reality of the African American experience, represented by Darren Gibson’s solo at the end accompanied by a Smithsonian Folkways recording of a black woman revivalist singing “Reborn Again.”

In the opening section, “Beautiful Dreamer,” the dancers enter in luridly colored unitards and black skullcaps in a silly floppy-armed run; they step in place, legs wide, butts stuck out in a kind of duck walk; they seem to be shuckin’ ‘n’ jivin’ in all the old familiar ways. It is funny and the audience laughs, but right away the feeling of the dance is at odds with the music, whose sentimental tide pulls us in a different direction. “Open Thy Lattice, Love” is a comic love duet in which the man and woman form Pilobolean organisms and roll around the floor; “Molly! Do You Love Me?” a spastic solo for a woman; “The Voice of Bygone Days” a male ensemble piece featuring a tortured soul who flops around the stage like a gasping fish. In “Linger in Blissful Repose,” another male-female duet, the woman is horrifyingly inert, and the man’s deep sigh on first seeing her shows plainly the burden she is to him. He drags her comically around the stage, even folds her up into an origami ball and rolls and kicks her about. But at the end the feeling shifts: when he holds her like a bundle over his shoulder and she falls backward, dead weight, between his legs and he swings her up again, it’s astoundingly beautiful–so weighted and free, so trustful and hopeless.

Up to this point the audience had been chuckling pretty often, but in the penultimate section, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” with the ensemble onstage “witnessing” reprises of earlier phrases, the movements no longer seemed funny. Somehow they were sad, though the synthetic music and recording–a white interpretation of the spiritual several generations distant from reality–kept them from tragedy. At that point we heard the anonymous woman preaching and singing about being reborn, and the raw pain and faith in her voice put all the trite business we’d seen and heard so far in its proper place. Gibson’s slow steps, traced on a diagonal across the stage and back, his convulsive dancing to the claps and shouts that power the woman’s singing, seemed the pure, economical truth. Some pieces of clothing are lovely for their fraying and wear, for their histories.

Feld’s dancers carry out his designs with an air of positive bliss. He seems a dancer’s choreographer, creating movement so pleasurable to perform that the dancer wants to repay him. At the same time he’s also chosen people who are wonderfully pliable and relaxed, who carry none of the tension of the traditional ballet dancer but are masters of classical technique and musically hyperalert. Buffy Miller in the 1988 Kore (on the second program I saw) was a miracle of fluidity and nuance, right down to her fingernails and the way her feet settled into the floor. But of the seven dances I saw perhaps the best showcase for personality was the 1984 suite The Jig Is Up. Sarah Kalmar was direct and forthright and determined as an arrow but beautifully sensual; Julie Stahl was a comic gamine, treading the air with a look both bewildered and sly; and Daniela Panessa (formerly a Hubbard Street dancer) revealed the luscious Latin swing of the hips behind her “Irish” steps.

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