Luna Negra Dance Theater

at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, May 13-16, 20-23

It’s rarely the function of a finale to point up the missed opportunities in everything that preceded it, but that was the role played by Batucada fantastica in Luna Negra Dance Theater’s recent concert. A succession of solos with a rousing company coda by the late Venezuelan choreographer Vicente Nebrada, this piece displayed the many sources of Latin American dance: secular and sacred, African and Spanish, salsa and Harlem Renaissance. Nebrada’s theme: how exhilarating it is to dance and how important it is to share that exhilaration. If he’d set out to highlight the false profundity and humorlessness of the other works on this program or their waste of two rich traditions–Latin and modern dance–he couldn’t have done a better job.

Luna Negra’s artistic director Eduardo Vilaro studied at Martha Graham’s school, and the two pieces he contributed to the evening reveal his fealty to the Graham style, emphasizing deliberate awkwardness in the service of meaning. Never pretty or graceful, Graham’s work demands that audiences recognize dance as a serious contributor to the wider cultural conversation. Though her approach underlies much modern and contemporary dance, her technique is rarely seen now in undiluted form, perhaps because what was once shocking now looks old hat. Or perhaps Graham, like other geniuses, worked right on the border between brilliance and ridiculousness. While her own efforts to change the aesthetic boundaries of dance were stirring and engaging, in the hands of lesser talents they’re merely clumsy.

As Graham’s 1936 Steps in the Street turned stomping into a comment on capitalism, Vilaro’s world premiere Angelitos Negros (“Black Angels”) seems intended to turn disconnected solos into comments on individual isolation, social fragmentation, and anomie. A man stands in a spotlight stretching his limbs but never moving, or begins a kick and then abandons it, or reaches skyward and then lets one arm drop without capturing anything. But there has to be a difference between commenting on anomie (that “black angel” of our nature) and producing it. I would argue that the difference is technical precision–otherwise it just looks like you can’t dance.

Brian Carey Chung’s Undertake to Do It Joyfully, the program’s other premiere, presents the same challenge to the dancers. Its old-fashioned vocabulary suggests a comedian who’s built his entire routine around the expression “Sock it to me.” Only performers with impeccable timing can make such dated material work. The dancers of Luna Negra have many individual strengths, but as a company they have anything but impeccable timing. Nobody drops anybody else, but few moves are actually simultaneous; few extensions rise to the same height or even precisely in the same direction. While it’s a bold choice to present several new pieces on a program, the gamble won’t pay off unless the dances are actually ready. Here, neither Angelitos Negros nor Undertake to Do It Joyfully looked fully rehearsed.

This sense of underpreparedness, of accident, is magnified by the musical selections, which are discordant and independent of the dancing they accompany. (The first two-thirds of the Angelitos Negros score, by Joshua Mathews and Osvaldo Golijov, sounds like a siren filtered through bass static, and the rest like a scratchy recording of the Latin music in Merrie Melodies cartoons.) Certainly choreographers since Merce Cunningham have divorced dancing from music, but again, execution is everything. Otherwise you think: What’s the matter with this guy? What good is a choreographer with a tin ear?

The music to Vilaro’s duet Imperfect Partners was inoffensive, and dancers Daniel Difoggio and Ryan Pickle had mastered the work in its company premiere. But the dance brings to a gay love affair such a tragic, self-renunciatory tone that it might as well be called “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” Fussy, restricted moves intensify the piece’s dated feel: one man sits stock-still in a chair “dancing” only with his fingers while the other writhes on the floor as if in response. Vilaro makes vividly apparent the shortcomings of this union–one man kicks and jumps while the other stretches and gazes at his reflection in the floor–without ever establishing its foundations. A final leap to embrace is too little too late.

After these three weak dances came Batucada fantastica, which precisely evokes entire cultures with single gestures–the shaking shoulders of Caribbean dance, the shaken finger of the Lindy Hop. Somehow the soloists never seemed to be alone, engaging with the audience and reminding us that dance is for connecting as much as for meditating. Not incidentally, the piece featured the evening’s best music: Luciano Perrone’s rhythmic, buoyant, simultaneously varied and internally consistent instrumental score. Even the costumes–Edith Arias’s form-fitting pants and tops in a witty mix of colors and patterns–were the evening’s best.

This perfectly executed celebration of traditional Latin music and dance raises the question: what heritage does Luna Negra celebrate? If ethnic dance can be so good, there’s no reason to bother with anything else. Ethnic traditions can certainly be oppressive, particularly for companies seeking mainstream recognition. Vilaro may not want his company to be narrowly categorized. But then the claims to Latin tradition should play a less prominent role in the group’s identity. It seems Luna Negra wavers between ethnic and modern dance, and as a result does neither well.

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