at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

October 12-15

Stephanie Skura is not the first or the only dancer to create a piece to a Beethoven symphony. Though never intended to be danced, his nine symphonies have inspired several choreographers in our century. Ballets have been made to the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies, and the Sixth (the Pastoral) was a highlight in the Disney film Fantasia.

But Skura is the only one I know of who has the wit and imagination to pair the monumental Fifth Symphony with a farcical and wildly athletic dance–Cranky Destroyers–and make that pairing work in a fascinatingly bizarre way.

Classical purists might complain that Skura’s choreographic treatment of Beethoven’s masterpiece, whose portentous opening notes have been described as “Fate knocking at the door,” is sacrilege. But if it is, it is most amusing sacrilege. And it has a sort of nutty logic in which Skura’s unconventional creative momentum somehow fits with the music’s urgency: neither music nor dance is accompaniment to the other, but in Skura’s nutty world they are companions.

Although Cranky Destroyers doesn’t seem to have a definite subject, the title of the piece offers the hint that Skura and her five dancers are, in fact, loonies. Clad in nondescript costumes, they are freed, temporarily, when they hear the recorded music and in their loony way respond, trying to destroy the music’s epic power through their eccentric slides, runs, leaps, jostlings, and daredevil falls.

Every movement has a quirky propulsion that makes the movement look as if the performer has just made it up, yet the dance also has an inexorable choreographic and even musical logic. Despite the manic nature of her creative vision, Skura has somehow managed to create a seamless whole with Beethoven. Still, the work cannot be called music visualization: apart from those opening tones, when the dancers stamp their feet in time with the music, the dancing does not correspond rhythmically to the music’s design. But whether one is watching two dancers mindlessly play at being children or Skura at the close of the second movement in a jacket cut to the waist cradling a semiautomatic rifle (which adds a grim note to the comic abandon), one is caught up in the nonstop action. This stunning work can be interpreted in various ways, or not at all. What matters are the extraordinary talents of the entire ensemble–Skura, Karl Anderson, Eric Diamond, Karen Langevin, Barbara Mahler, and Debra Wanner–who never faltered, and Skura’s courage in taking on Beethoven and not falling on her face. (She would, too, if she thought it choreographically necessary.)

Stopstartswat, a solo choreographed and performed by Skura, was the provocative curtain raiser. She can’t decide in this dance just where she wants to go, what she wants to do when she gets there, or what she wants to say. She continually walks or runs off the stage, uncertain of her goal. She wants to speak but cannot, so in desperation she mugs a silent monologue, and in her frustrated stops and starts she is by turn funny and sad. But she’s always a compelling presence, accompanied by James Pugliese’s taped electronic burps and squiggles.

Big Waves has a program note about the buildup of large forces and disintegration. The constant movement–sometimes expanding, sometimes shrinking–is reminiscent of waves surging forward and then ebbing away. The exuberant athleticism of Big Waves is even more striking than in Cranky Destroyers. And like waves that are always uniquely original–almost improvisational–the dancers’ bodies mirror the impact of each wave as they leap up or at each other, or crash to the floor.

Elizabeth Prince’s clever costumes accent Big Waves’ improvisational style. The suitable score is electronic wavelike sounds by Aural Fixation, supplemented by Pachelbel’s Canon and music from the Doors. But despite the work’s constant inventiveness, or perhaps because of it, Big Waves goes on too long, and its initial sharp, brilliant impact wanes.

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