As it turns out, what interests the next generation of choreographers–showcased three at a time last weekend and this one–is pretty much what interests all of us: Love and death. Power and intimacy. Not taxes, but definitely money. Dance can be expressive on such subjects but rarely analytical. Dances that work drop a stone into the viewer’s heart, and then, if the choreographer and dancers work hard and lead a charmed life, it produces ripples of feeling as the often nameless subject gathers new meaning and emotion.

Some of the dances, however, especially those with text, are more clear-cut. Consider Sheldon B. Smith’s Solo Sketch for a Large Group Piece for Joffrey to Buy, Guest Starring…Me. The title tells us a lot, and Smith fills us in on the rest after slowly traversing the stage wearing several antennae lit up at the ends, ray-gun fingers, and a shiny silver skirt. These he doffs to take charge of a lectern, microphone, and notes to describe a three-act ballet he envisions, a combination Star Wars movie, conspiracy film, and tale of true love between a Cajun girl and an alien “space clown.” A true monstrosity with terrible music, a cast of thousands, and a sentimental streak a mile wide, it sounds as if it would be death to watch and deathly expensive to stage. But then, so are lots of movies and a few full-length ballets. The point is, Smith doesn’t have the money for such a venture–even the Joffrey wouldn’t have it–but he has the imagination to come up with it, and his largely imaginary work neatly satirizes our culture’s approach to the “arts.”

Colleen Halloran’s Desire Goddess, another solo with text as well as a short video, takes to task the choreographer herself and, by extension, a whole culture preoccupied with love and beauty. It’s not exactly a new subject, but Halloran approaches it cleverly, with self-deprecation and memories of teen angst–and adult angst–we can all appreciate. This short dance becomes almost imperceptibly more serious, until finally Halloran makes a grand gesture that reduces all the talk about beauty to garbage.

Halloran–part smart aleck, part vulnerable little girl–has a gift for the throwaway line and a certain reckless humor. Unfortunately, those gifts are set aside in a more serious work she made for this showcase, a quartet called In This Moment That Has Passed. Apparently a meditation on time, it features contrasting tempi and movement backward and in slow motion. If Halloran has a point to make about time, however, it isn’t clear–though it sometimes seems that the dancers, who often show no connection, collide or almost connect by some accident of timing. At any rate, intimacy is short-lived, as the dancers’ bursts of energy throw their arms and legs away from the torso but fail to bring the performers closer together.

Smith also had a serious piece on the program, though again the title seems a joke: Loft Block (The Mason’s Daughters). One could speculate for hours on the ambiguous words “loft” and “mason,” but knowing Smith’s sense of humor, I’d say that’s a bad idea. Here the meaning seems to reside in the unsentimental, deeply felt connection between Smith’s two dancers, Christine Bornarth and Julie Hopkins. As the piece opens we see a woman looking up with her arms spread wide, stepping toward us from the shadows at the rear of the stage and leaning back at an impossible angle. Eventually the dancer crouched behind and supporting her becomes visible. Their costumes (designed by Hopkins) are pale green, like luna moths, diaphanous and shredded: the dancers look like ghostly shipwrecked sailors. Dim, speckled lighting (by Margaret L. Nelson) enhances the sense that we’re watching a scene from another world.

Loft Block (The Mason’s Daughters) is broken into two sections by a blackout and a change in the music, played live (behind a scrim) by Smith and Robert Hyman: it switches from painfully loud, buzzing rock ‘n’ roll to what sounds like drums and gamelan. Similarly, the dancers seem to have reached a more harmonious togetherness by the end, as they repeat together the obsessive motion performed by one of them midway through. Smith has become a choreographer of some polish, knitting his dances together seamlessly, combining big phrases full of momentum with much smaller motions–as when a dancer walks her fingers along her own forearm, following their motion with her eyes. Using tandem and supported movement that verges on partnering, he creates a sense of give-and-take between the dancers that’s both matter-of-fact and highly charged–like all our most intimate relationships.

The third choreographer in this showcase, Peter Carpenter, has made a dance superficially unlike Smith’s–big, social, and brightly lit where Smith’s is small, personal, and shadowy–but they act on us similarly, creating a pool of emotion that grows, we’re not quite sure how. A Victim’s Revenge features seven dancers in scenarios that repeat but whose meaning shifts, aided by music ranging from Seven Year Bitch to a piece for voice and strings by Handel to a mix of a soulful ballad (“Everything must change….The young become old”) with a love song about tantalizing strange and sweet sensations.

A Victim’s Revenge opens with a man who embodies the tentative and lost: stepping backward, he feels his own torso and thighs as if searching for his keys or reassuring himself he’s still there. Six dancers rush from the wings, stop and focus on the ground just before they meet him, fling their arms up and back, turn and fall, then scramble off again. The vague threat implied by this repeated action is reinforced when one dancer lies on the floor and three others place a foot on him: it looks like a mugging, perhaps gay bashing. Other movements also suggest victims, such as raising the arms in a relaxed circle, then letting the head fall to one side, eyes closed–I couldn’t help thinking of Christ on the cross. Covering the mouth with the hands–a motion that occurs early on–is “explained” in the final section, when one dancer, then another and another becomes hysterical during a full-out ensemble section, crying, moaning, and laughing all at once. This contagious hysteria caps the rising current of emotion in the piece, both expressing and quelling it with a slight ironic edge. It’s a masterstroke in a work that somehow conveys a brush with death.

A generation even younger than the choreographers in the Next Generation Project (some of whom have been working for ten years or more) can be seen in “Motivity: A Choreographers Festival”–two weekends of programs, each with a different lineup, put together by 16 choreographers who responded to a flyer last fall. And if the concert I saw is any indication, these fledgling choreographers are typical young people, taking themselves very, very seriously.

Of the 12 dances by ten choreographers I saw, at least 7 dealt with vague psychological situations: awakenings of the soul, inward journeys, circles of life. These seldom succeeded, and they tended to be longer than the others–not a good combination. Those that fared best were more specific. Martha Mulligan in Tuesday’s Lesson addresses the experience of a first-year inner-city schoolteacher, and her piece has some nice motifs–like a hand on a cocked hip. Unfortunately, the original music is often muddy, and the dance goes nowhere for a long time, then climaxes for a long time. Amanda Selwyn in Contradicting Unity creates a work with some drama by including a text, radical changes in lighting, and a few genuine interactions between the dancers.

Briefer and more entertaining were the pieces that focused on something outside the choreographer. Shelby Kroeger shows musicality, a sense of dance history, and a nice humorous touch in two dances inspired by their music: John Lee Hooker in Still Standing, Keep Talking and King Floyd in Wingin’ It. Laurel Moore introduces refreshingly unpretty movement in Just Duet!, an athletic piece set to percussion. And Joanna Rosenthal chooses interesting music by the Balanescu Quartet for an abstract, highly musical quartet focused on patterns and partnering; an untitled work in progress, it has no real ending, but parts of it positively sweep the viewer along.

Many of these choreographers appear to be well trained, using formal devices like repetition to give their works structure. But they haven’t learned the trick Peter Carpenter has learned so well: repetitions should gather meaning as they go. If they don’t, they leave us in the same place where we began, only older and more tired.

Next Generation Project

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 19-21 and 26-28

Motivity: A Choreographers


at Link’s Hall, June 20-22 and 27-29

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Martha Mulligan photo by Lori Duff.