at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

October 20, 21, 27, and 28

The Lynda Martha Dance Company is another of those companies long on style and short on substance. The Evanston-based troupe is one of the area’s most technically proficient, with nine consistent, capable, lithe, quick dancers. The majority of their dances are entertaining and innocuous, and succeed admirably at that level. But when the company attempts a more complicated work–a dance that suggests the darker side of the psyche or that tries to explore the nuances of an intricate musical score or a cosmic abstraction–their performance is less than satisfying.

Company director Martha’s Elements, choreograghed in 1979 and restaged this year, represents the banal, pretty stuff that used to be the company’s hallmark. The dancers enter rolling and stretching; they huddle, reach, and plie. They lie scattered about the space, come to life one by one, collapse one by one, rise again one by one. Though such repetition can be soothing or meditative, in the first section of Elements it is numbing and predictable. Each movement phrase is initiated by a clear musical cue–a change in tempo, a sudden silence, the entrance of a different instrument. (Rick Panzer’s electronic music alternately suggests wind chimes, wind instruments, a windstorm, and assorted drums and keyboards; it’s a score more programmatic than evocative.)

In its first section, Elements is a neat and tidy package; in the second, it unspools with an increasing force alternately centrifugal and centripetal. As the dancers coalesce and splinter in clumps, circles, and radiating lines, the performance space seems to expand and contract. Harsh lighting intensifies the effect as the dancers’ shadows shrink, grow, careen, and caper on the scrim behind them. (The design owes much to the psychedelia of Alwin Nikolais’s dances of the late 60s and early 70s; no lighting designer receives program credit for this dance, however.) The movement itself is smaller, quicker than before; in this section, the dancers move rapidly through space instead of reaching endlessly into it. Arms arc slowly at waist level, a vivid contrast with the lower body’s fast, driving feet and quick changes of direction.

While the dancers hurtle through space, riding the score’s loud, insistent, percussive pulse, their faces reveal not the least hint of individual character or emotion. Elements looks like a dance that has adopted–but not metabolized–something of traditional African dance forms, a dance that has borrowed traditional forms and neglected their content. In Elements, the dancers are technically accomplished but spiritually adrift.

The company looks its best in two dances by outside choreographers: Cartoons by Shirley Mordine and Businessman’s Lunch by Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith. Both dances are lively, comic character dances; Businessman’s Lunch is colored by a simple and unexpected pathos, Cartoons by Mordine’s typical mordant wit. The movement of Lunch is wild–all over the stage, over and under tables, in and out of the wings; that of Cartoons carefully edited. The two dances inhabit entirely different rhetorical worlds. In Lunch, the choreography creates the characters: this gesturing index finger calls up a certain kind of man; these scurrying, hunched shoulders suggest a specific sort of woman. The choreography of Cartoons follows necessarily from the nature of the characters: of course these two good-time girls must move this way, and in a later section, there’s no other way the pompous ass could dance.

Businessman’s Lunch is a long dance, a comic narrative full of details that can be construed in several different ways. Who’s sleeping with whom? Whose power is in the ascendant? It’s fun and it’s funny; even the pratfalls read well. The choreography is extraordinarily inventive–there’s no end to the number of ways the dancers relate to the set’s five chairs and three tables. They slide across tabletops, somersault off them, leap on and slip off, scoot around on some chairs, topple others. Perhaps our kinesthetic pleasure is greatest in the extended section for two men, Jaap v t’Hoff and Matthew Keefe, which suggests a stuffy business lunch one moment and an overt power struggle the next. They step onto the table, shake hands, and casually step off again–no mean feat, the table’s nearly desk-high. They repeat the maneuver in every possible posture: in arabesque, with turns, without turns, back-to-back, back-to-front. Up, down, around, over–their arms and legs etch great arcs in space; they hang suspended for just a moment every time they prepare to dismount. Rhythm piles on rhythm–the playful electronic noises of Joe Davidson’s score, the sounds of feet touching and sliding on table and floor, the visible rhythms of the two bodies in space. The movement is irresistible.

Cartoons can be irresistible or insipid, depending as it does on the evanescent qualities of a particular performer at a particular moment; its success or failure has very little to do with the choreography. Repeated viewings of Cartoons convince me that what matters is its dramatic success; in choreography so determinedly theatrical, we can tell the dancer from the dance.

In the section of Cartoons called “Women Behind the Men’s Behind or There Abouts . . . ,” Tammy Cheney and Natasha Posey are wacky and funny, all awkward elbows and twitching torsos, women brash and unbroken–they’re entirely comfortable with the smoky back room mentioned in the score (Marlene Dietrich singing “Go Tell the Boys”). In “Generally Speaking,” we don’t really watch a Napoleonic dolt marching and gesticulating; we watch Udo Demmig’s performance, a performance complete with slack jaw, geeky peek of underwear, and obvious relish for bathroom humor. When Leigh Richey and Jaap v t’Hoff, all gaping mouths and thrust-out chins, grope and galumph their way through “Pink Gardenia,” we pay attention to nervousness and energy, not waltz and lindy. When Cartoons is performed without reserve–as it was in these three vignettes–it’s astonishingly good and goofy theater.

The company’s performance of Cartoons and Businessman’s Lunch suggests that character and characterization are now their strong suit; they have always been strong and polished technicians. How very strange then that Martha’s Almost a Tango–a trio, ostensibly about the impermanence of human relationships, made last year expressly for her company–finds the dancers about as personal and expressive as three automatons. Almost a Tango features a lot of pretty movement–Beverly Sikes winding and unwinding her legs from around Demmig and v t’Hoff in clever lifts, the men passing her back and forth. But without the force of the dancers’ individual personalities, the dance remains an exercise in technique, and a precious, pretentious exercise at that.