Off Your Center

at Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center of Northwestern University, January 6-8; repeating at Link’s Hall, January 14 and 15

Acting on the precepts of such famous postmodernists as Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, and Merce Cunningham, young choreographers since them have often used dance to explore dance itself. The result was what some termed “pure movement,” stripped of theatricality and emotion. Finding new ways to use the body, gravity, space, and time may be a noble pursuit, but audiences haven’t always been intrigued by these abstract concepts. In fact such concerts can be flat-out boring.

But young choreographers Peter Carpenter, Marianne Kim, and Cynthia Reid use dance to explore something more than just dance: in “Pictured From Right to Left” their subjects range from 24-hour supermarkets to the writing on bathroom walls to gay love. Their styles and interests vary, but they share a strong sense of theatricality and a talent for noticing the unusual amid the ordinary. All three judiciously employ props, text, and color to provide a rich, meaningful context for their movement. And for the most part they succeed in communicating ideas that an audience might actually find interesting.

Of the three, collectively called Off Your Center, Carpenter seems the most focused. Not only does he have a keen eye for body language, he develops his perceptions into highly emotional psychological dances supporting a strong personal vision, often delicately exploring sexual identity.

Carpenter is a compelling performer–one of those rare dancers whose bodies genuinely express strong emotions. In Undertow he plays an agitated boy caught in a push-pull relationship with a young girl (Martha Donovan). The settings are the playground and the bedroom; the only props are Carpenter’s red rubber ball and Donovan’s purple blue sheet, each of which becomes an extension of the dancers’ emotions and the tense relationship that develops between them. The two turn, pull, and twist each other in the folds of the sheet, which at one point is transformed into a bed cover. Their relationship grows more agitated until Carpenter breaks free, tossing his ball from hand to hand like an angry, frustrated boy who wants to be alone on the playground.

Let Me Change Into Something More Comfortable, about a gay man’s discovery of love, seems a logical extension of Undertow. Carpenter and Patrick McNulty playfully mimic each other, roughhouse, and grow tender as they realize their love. Their relationship provides ample fodder for Carpenter’s anger in Straights to Hell. The dance begins with Carpenter waving a white sheet and singing a soulful a cappella version of “Danny Boy.” Projected on the sheet is the image of a boy missing two front teeth, smiling innocently at the camera.

Although it’s never said, the photo is clearly of someone Carpenter loved. He’s gone now (presumably due to AIDS), and all that remains of him is this image, which surrounds Carpenter like a ghost. Carpenter’s sorrow turns to anger, however, as he recites a call for gay-rights activism (taken from The Culture of Desire), all the while repeating a series of stylized symbolic movements: placing a wedding band on a finger, saluting, rocking a baby, rubbing his hands between his buttocks. His movements mirror the emotion in his voice as he demands that “queers get mad” and speak up for their right to love one another as they choose.

Like Carpenter, Kim fills her dances with emotion and has a talent for observing human nature. Her aesthetic, however, is quite different, based as it is in the minimalist Japanese dance form of butoh, known as the “dark soul dance.” This is most evident in Circling Red Nights, a slow-moving solo in which she crawls on all fours toward a bright red parasol suspended from the ceiling. Long black hair hanging over her face, she languidly lifts an arm, and her hands seem to hang, exhausted, from her wrists. As she lowers the arm just as slowly, she seems to be human but in an inhuman world. After much time, she stands. Her face is pale, almost gray. With mesmerizing delicacy, she balances the parasol on top of one hand. It seems all her soul has been captured in her hands as they alternately twitch and float around her body.

Kim’s thinking and choreography seem to be imbued with the delicacy of butoh. Even Riding on the Wall–a quirky, witty duet subtitled Journey With the Tidy Bowl–is gentle in its examination of bathroom activities and preoccupations. Her sly humor is evident in the opening scene, in which we hear a Bach requiem as two women (Donovan and Sara Kraft, who cochoreographed the dance) sit on toilet bowls illuminated from inside by a bright, pure light. Kneeling, they dip their hands in the bowls and raise them in prayer. The dance falls apart in the second section, however, when the two run around the stage pushing the toilet bowls and pulling long strands of toilet paper from rolls way up on the ceiling, while a voice recites snippets of writings on bathroom walls. Losing its purpose, the dance becomes too cute. Kim seems more interested in playing with these props than in what she wants to say about them.

Reid shares Carpenter’s and Kim’s keen powers of observation. She also creates structurally strong dances and has a good sense of rhythm. In Mean World Syndrome . . . I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat, she explores the relationship between humor and violence in cartoons, telling bad jokes and acting out “funny” but violent scenes. She comes close to creating a David Lynch sense of the macabre as she, Carpenter, and Kim squat and walk around the stage clucking like chickens to the Loony Tunes theme song. But Reid seems unwilling to make her point strongly, shying away from her own opinions. Perhaps she mistakenly believes they’ll be made clear simply by portraying her. observations.

This shortcoming is also evident in 24 Hr. Days, a clean, crisp examination of what she calls “the contrasts and tensions found in the seemingly mundane experiences of grocery shopping.” With recordings taken from the Omni Superstore, 24 Hr. Days feels surreal: four dazed dancers (Kelly Borcherts, TonRay Ho, Julie Hopkins, and Jenny M. Kobylarz) push cardboard boxes across the stage like robot shoppers.

This is a revision of a dance first presented last summer. In earlier versions the dancers moved in monotonous assemblyline manner, not looking at one another or interacting. At one point they collapsed, only to be picked up by a strongwilled shopper who valiantly forged ahead. Reid’s new version almost eliminates this action. Although the result is choreographically cleaner, she has also edited out the dances most salient point–that 24-hour shopping is a form of torture.

Unfortunately, the evening’s a long one, and the nine dances dont flow well. The program jumps from one choreographer to another, which undermines the cohesiveness of each one’s vision. Some dances–such as Reid’s Free Fall and Kim’s Directions: Loose Dogs Will Bite–are overshadowed by the dances that precede them; perhaps Reid and Kim need to beef them up a bit. But fortunately these three choreographers have a vision–a rather compelling vision. Which speaks well for dance, which has lost audiences over the years because of its seeming lack of desire to communicate.