at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

June 23-24

Watching Akasha Dance Company’s recent concert was a bit like eating a slice of lemon chiffon pie for lunch: while you relish the indulgence of such a sweet treat, part of you still longs for a nourishing meal. All six of Akasha’s dancers are accomplished technicians, and the style of the company is unaffected and assured. It’s sad to see them settle for easy success when they’re obviously capable of so much more.

Dancers like these can persuade us to swallow almost anything, even persuade us that they aren’t dancers at all but plants and animals. In Ginger Farley’s A Beastie Piece (1985), the dancers are creatures of fantasy–a whacked-out ballerina in frothy pink, a Napoleonic figure sporting three shiny red horns, and a quirky character in what seems to be a 1920s bathing costume. In Joseph Novak’s Pas de Plant (1979, rechoreographed 1989), the dancers are an iridescent palm tree and a cat. In Austin Hartel’s Vastus Sylva (1986), they’re a changing menagerie.

The Tom Waits score for A Beastie Piece tells us that “there’s a lot going on underground,” but there’s not an equivalent amount going on onstage. In the first two sections, the men–Rob Lane and Oliver Ramsey–get all the exciting choreography: the odd jumps, the quick entrances and exits, the bent wrists and flexed fingers. The woman, Elizabeth Wild, gets in on the action only occasionally, but she does get all the camp–pursed lips, raised eyebrows, the silent movie “Ooh! I can’t look!” look. In the brief third section, the trio cuts loose in unison movement that emphasizes their three contrasting body types and subtly different choreographic phrases; they wear pastel-spattered white unitards and are finally freed of the beginning’s shtick.

Pas de Plant has a gimmick, too, but a more organic one: the movement arises from the constraints and opportunities of one of the costumes. When Pas de Plant opens, we see only a handful of shiny, variegated palm fronds trembling in the light; the performer unfolds and we see Laura Wade wearing pointe shoes and a painted green unitard with loose wide strips of fabric stretching from hand to ankle. She peers through and around the strips, freezing at Dan Prindle’s sudden entrance. Wearing a spotty unitard and whiskers painted on his face (is this Cats?), Prindle prances, rolls, lolls, naps. She bourrees over to him, alternately threatening and seductive; he quails, but eventually wanders through the fabric foliage (reminiscent of Alwin Nikolais’s prop-centered dances of the late 60s and early 70s) to support and turn her, winding himself up in her costume.

The female creatures of Pas de Plant and A Beastie Piece are recognizable stereotypes–Clara Bow cutie, siren. Vastus Sylva (by former Pilobolus Dance Theater member Hartel) has nothing to do with sex, sexuality, or sex roles. Anna Czajun’s shiny, greenish hooded unitards minimize gender, individuality, even humanity. Sidling handstands, creeping needlelike balances, improbable sprawls: human beings don’t move this way, but frogs, orangutans, and turtles might. Vastus Sylva is an intriguing dance because its acts of transformation occur before our eyes; it shifts imperceptibly from the real world to the world of the imagination and back again. Whatever these beasts may be, they’re certainly social animals–playing, knocking one another over, nudging one another back onto their feet. I’m still trying to imagine a creature with a huge posterior, minuscule head, and enough curiosity to turn around to see who farted. At one level, the dance is a deliberately insoluble puzzle: “Two satyrs. No, two camels. Four apes? No. What is that? When did that happen?” At another level, Vastus Sylva is about the untapped kinetic potential of human bodies–the performers “walk” on shoulders and heels, go from prone to airborne, slide across the floor on one unlikely body part after another.

Dances like Vastus Sylva are eye-opening as well as entertaining. Seeing Vastus Sylva, A Beastie Piece, and Pas de Plant on the same program raises some interesting questions: Are dances like these metaphors for the alienation of contemporary life, or an attempt to escape from it? Do dances like these affirm subtle truths, or do they seek only to entertain? Are they food for the soul, or mind candy?

Dances that deal with human relationships, manners, mores, and character–even just by implication–are more substantial, satisfying fare. Of the nine sections in Martin Kravitz’s The Once Not Remembered (1984), the three duets treat three of the innumerable ways that people can dance together; we read the duets as metaphors for human interaction.

In the first section, Laura Wade and Elizabeth Wild dance a study in complementarity, arms lightly resting on each other’s waist, bending forward and arching back in tandem, describing great arcs across the floor. They part and whirl toward the center, freeze for an instant in a mirror image. One’s hand curves to cradle the other’s head; one extricates herself and drifts away, then returns. The dance’s manner is gentle, graceful; its tone nostalgic.

The third section, a duet for Wade and Rob Lane, recasts many of the same movement motifs–the slow rippling arms, the head resting on the partner’s palm, a dissolving and re-forming embrace, the arcing spatial patterns–in a cooler, more dissonant mold. In the fourth section, performed by Wild and Oliver Ramsey, dissonance dissolves into conflict. Hands splay, extend, and frame instead of curving and supporting; the dancers’ eye contact lessens; they move back and forth along a straight diagonal.

Some of the concert’s most tantalizing moments are found in two solos danced by Ramsey: the second section of The Once Not Remembered, and all of Timothy O’Slynne’s Seven Deadly Sweets. In the first piece Ramsey is a mild, befuddled character–patting first one part of his body, then another, as if looking for something in a pocket or uncertain whether or not he’s all there–who bows genteelly and politely doffs his hat to an unseen passerby. In the second, Ramsey is the neurotic anybody/everybody who appears in many of O’Slynne’s darkly humorous dances.

In the section of Seven Deadly Sweets called “Fashion,” Ramsey is victimized by the snorkel, mask, and outsize flippers that transform even his simplest movements into grotesques. In “Gluttony,” Ramsey is so weighted that even when he sits up, his spine remains slouchy and rounded. “Gall” is a brief, bright assault on the audience; “Obsession” a good, quick giggle; “Addiction” typical of O’Slynne’s broad, black vignettes. The “Curiosity” and “Vanity” sections are longer, adding easy movement–a swinging pelvis, expanding tremors, an extended circling arm, small and telling gestures–to the same kind of theatrical characterization operating in the other sections. The “sweets” are snapshots rather than a film, evocative rather than explicit: a dance that provokes as well as entertains.

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