at the Dance Center of Columbia College

May 4, 5, 11, and 12

In the 11 years since she founded her company, Lynda Martha has been pretty consistent in presenting dances–whether by herself or by guest choreographers–in a style that might be loosely identified as the modern-jazz idiom. The works that the Lynda Martha Dance Company has performed stressed charm, humor, and nonstop fleetness, which made for lively, theatrical programs, more commercial and accessible than the work of other local troupes. Rarely did one have to ponder the significance of a dance at a Martha concert. That is also pretty much true of their current program at the Dance Center, which includes three works by Martha and one by Leslie Jane Pessemier, a San Francisco choreographer.

This concert also offers, however, several striking examples of a newfound artistic imagination and maturity. I’d guess that a good part of that comes from the sleek virtuosic talents of her eight dancers, most of them new to the company. They cope effortlessly with complicated lifts, demanding leaps, rolls on the floor, and split-second timing and speed in close partnering.

The curtain raiser, Elements, to an original taped score by Rick Panzer, is a strong modern dance that might best be described as Martha’s ecology piece–a rain forest ritual for five women and two men. The group, clad in flesh-colored costumes adorned with black fringes on legs and upper arms, are presumably denizens of a threatened world. They dance out their fears and prayers with vigor and commitment.

Hearts and Bones, by Pessemier (who also designed the striking costumes), is performed to a piano concerto by Bohuslav Martinu. It is a strong, demanding piece in three movements closely tied in mood to the music’s driving pulse. The women’s black dresses trimmed in red are an integral part of the dance, contributing not only dramatic color but movement as the women’s skirts swirl around them, particularly as they circle the stage in unison. The second movement pas de deux, as performed by Abby Kantor and Matthew Keefe, was poetry in motion, and the finale brings the entire cast into play in consistently fascinating dance designs that include several daring lifts, including one or two that were worrisome to watch.

The dance was preceded by a tape of Pessemier explaining how the Martinu score had inspired her. Hearing an artist describe her feelings about music and dance can offer the audience valuable insights, but Pessemier rambled on much too long. Her work deserves better than her girlish giggling and ingenuous tone.

Martha’s Almost a Tango, to an astringent string quartet by Astor Piazzolla, is another in the string of choreographic explorations of the tango inspired by Tango Argentino, which reintroduced this generation to the erotic South American dance and made Piazzolla a musical household word.

Martha gives Almost a Tango a slight, somewhat pretentious story line–Udo Demmig and Beverly Sikes are identified in the program as the Lovers, and Jaap v t’Hoff as Fate. Forget the program, however, and watch the stunning dance–the most riveting and complex work Martha has ever created. The Lovers hold each other passionately while their feet never stop their intricate, fleet movements. Between embraces Demmig tosses Sikes recklessly–sometimes t’Hoff catches her, sometimes Demmig does. She eventually escapes t’Hoff and leaps back into her lover’s arms. Is t’Hoff really Fate, or just a man desiring the man, the woman, or both? One never knows in this cryptic, fascinating piece. But it doesn’t really matter, for the piece’s real drama is found in the brilliant dance designs Martha created for the trio.

Martha’s Hollywood Canteen, the concluding number, was the weakest dance on the program. It’s a silly, dated piece, supposedly evoking sentimental memories of how young Americans responded to the various social-dance fads and the big-band sounds of the past. The number even included a set–tables and chairs, and an art-deco projection on the wall–to add the ambience of a social club. It’s hard to believe that the person who put together this vibrant, intelligent program could actually have created this overlong, boring piece. Even her very gifted dancers looked embarrassed jitterbugging or jumping onto tables. I know I was embarrassed watching.