Smartdance/Maureen Janson and Dancers

at Link’s Hall, October 15 and 16

Maureen Janson’s dances are powered by an opposition between the “raw” and the “cooked,” terms that the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss invented. He says that cultures take the common raw material of humanity–sex, death, adolescence, old age–and “cook” it into a variety of cultural forms: rites of passage, funerals, pornography. Dance, another cultural form, is often relentlessly cooked and civilized. And just as I sometimes want to eat a raw potato with a little salt, I sometimes want raw dance.

But what may have seemed raw at one time, like the oriental dances of Ruth St. Denis, often look hopelessly overcivilized to later generations. Making a dance starts the cultural cooking process, slowly transforming the raw elements into idealized, stylized gestures. The pleasure of Janson’s dances comes from watching her both discover new raw elements and start the cooking process.

The concert’s first dance, Raw Work #1, emphatically illustrates the new elements Janson is using. Before the house lights have dimmed a body comes running down the aisle at Link’s Hall and does a turning jump at the front of the stage. The woman (Janson) runs to the back wall, does another turning jump, and disappears through a side door. Returning a few minutes later, she leaps through the same side door and lets the momentum carry her through several more contracted turns. She stops and makes a series of odd gestures–twitches her head to the side, says “Hey,” slaps herself on the face, and slowly starts to poke herself in the eyes with two fingers. Janson’s quirky gestures are certainly raw, but her off-center leaps and turns are more interesting. Her body is released, and she does not try to show a line or shape to the audience; instead, her momentum dictates her shape, and clear lines emerge naturally from her movement. The dance ends wittily–Janson stops, faces the audience and starts to smile, then hides the smile, but as she walks backward it starts to reappear as the lights fade.

Janson comes flying in through the side door at the beginning of her second solo, Etched in Gravel in the Perfect White Dress, but she doesn’t leap–she’s been thrown. She’s wearing a rainbow-striped minidress and black high-heeled shoes, and as the Beatles’ “I Dig a Pony” plays, she tries to dance the same way as in her first solo but is prevented by her shoes. She takes them off and dances the same sequence again, much more freely than in shoes. But when the music stops, at the end of the dance, she goes to her shoes, her hands clasped at her side as if in prayer: she seems to long for them and for the idealized femininity they represent. Most of this dance depends on Janson’s high energy, but it’s not quite enough to fill out the work, which loses focus in the middle. Even raw dances need structure.

Janson’s third solo, All the Conversations, starts the cooking process, as she casts her elements into a more conventional form. As the lights come up, Janson stands facing away from the audience, gently rocking, her left hand resting and sometimes fluttering on her right shoulder. Suddenly she dives to the floor and lifts her leg and arm at a sharp angle for a few moments, then she returns to her standing rocking. Janson’s single quirky gesture–the fluttering hand–seems delicate and struggling. Her huge movement from standing to lying on the floor is as momentum-filled as her raw movement, but it also makes a lovely shape. The rest of the dance continues this sculptural, abstract, and interesting movement.

Dances for several performers are usually more cooked than solos, because a choreographer has had to teach a dancer different ways of moving; a choreographer’s intention doesn’t always show through her dancers’ bodies. Janson’s 800th Lifetime succeeds because the dancers have learned her movement style, while Plunge fails because the movement is relatively conventional. Plunge starts and ends with good images–of three women gathered around a pool of light, then one woman falling into the pool–but the body of the dance has no sustaining images. Without Janson’s raw movement there’s nothing really to watch in most of this work.

Throughout 800th Lifetime Janson, dressed in an evening gown, sits in a chair at the front of the stage staring at a box of chocolates. When the dance starts, she gobbles chocolates while laughing and crying hysterically. Five dancers (Alexandra Beller, Peter Carpenter, Paul Cipponeri, Kande Culver, and Amanda Stanger) stand in a line at the back of the stage, the women dressed in evening gowns and the men in dark pants, white shirts, and ties. The bulk of the dance is a collage of images–after the dancers line up one behind the other, the front dancer yells “Thank you,” then is shoved aside by the next dancer; they boogie jerkily, then embrace each other tightly and sway slowly; a woman leaps on a man’s back repeatedly as he slowly walks away. As the dance progresses, one by one the dancers change onstage into loose black pants and tops with metal ornaments. Finally Janson obsessively lays chocolates across the front of the stage, and the dancers dash between the back wall and the line of chocolates until at the end one of them triumphantly discovers a chocolate. The dance seems intended to represent breaking out of daily routines to discover the chocolate morsel; it succeeds because of the dancers’ high spirits and because Janson’s raw movement embodies a joy of life. Winston Damon’s hurdy-gurdy-like music adds to the dance’s high spirits and quirkiness.

In the program biographies, one dancer thanks Janson for “her larger vision, complete weirdness and support.” Janson’s “complete weirdness” makes for interesting dances, though they may need to cook a bit longer.