at the Dance Center of Columbia College

March 31 and April 1

Susan Marshall is obsessed with the thin line. When does an embrace turn into an attack or a trap? How do you tell a real-life kiss from a theatrical kiss from a dancer’s kiss? The one point on which Marshall never wavers is in her instinct for what’s dramatic–perhaps because she finds and walks those thin lines so unerringly.

Of the works on the Dance Center program by this New York-based choreographer, Arms (1984) seemed the clearest expression of Marshall’s technique: a throwaway surface that belies the dark subtext. She captures the way that movement, all by itself, can reveal the obscure intent. Despite its abstraction, this duet (danced by Jackie Goodrich and Andrew Boynton) evokes street kids in love. The intensity of their affection shades into violence–an amorous approach can look like aggression and be met as if it were, a caress is often not bestowed by but forced from another.

The two dancers face the audience throughout, moving only very slowly toward us; their arms are the focus. Although isolating the arms may at first seem the simplest and most straightforward isolation possible, the first thing we notice is that these movements are not truly isolated. An arm thrown up, if the body’s allowed its latitude, naturally brings the rib cage with it . Indeed, one of Marshall’s preoccupations seems the body’s natural impetus, its natural rhythms–what gives even the nondancer’s movements grace and continuity and makes them flow to and through another person, inciting a response. In one of Arms’ motifs, for example, the woman pulls the man’s arm around her shoulders; but as soon as it starts to settle there, she shrugs it off. After several repetitions, her propulsive shrug causes a rebound: he drops from the waist like a rag doll. Her shrug–her rejection of him–then shades into a swoop forward to embrace and retrieve him, to bring him back upright. These motions, however suggestive emotionally, are always abstract; the piece ends with the dancers raking the air above their heads, their arms whirling in nearly intersecting patterns. (The music, by Luis Resto, often recalls the beating of helicopter blades.)

In Companion Pieces (1987), Marshall goes even further in exploring the fine line between an amorous gesture and an act of coercion. Here the movement is much less stylized and abstract, much more theatrical. Moreover the dancers have distinct characters, and the main prop–a well-worn, plump sofa–gives them a distinct setting. In two duets and a trio–to three songs that can best be described as R & B panty wetters–Marshall explores the kind of Saturday-afternoon grope that populates the no-man’s-land between companionship and sex.

The first segment, danced by Marshall and Boynton, opens with the woman literally in the superior position. The man lies on his back on the floor, his legs and arms raised, and she’s perched horizontally on his hands and feet facing him. He tosses her onto the couch. She falls off it onto him. For a while he’s willing to let her pull his arms and legs erect and then balance on them. But as it goes on he gets tired or fed up or both, and his arms and legs go limp. This woman’s a real pest though–it never occurs to her that she can be anything but irresistibly cute–and so she keeps it up until the segment ends with her coiled around him, perhaps in apology, still convinced he wants her near.

In the second segment it’s the man (David Dorfman) who coerces the woman (Goodrich). The question again is: who gets to be the aggressor? Here the man’s trickiness and superior strength win out. He kisses her, then tweaks her nose. He pins her by the arms and legs, puts her in a headlock, kicks her playfully in the butt, tickles her, slaps her rear, and ends by pinning her beneath him. At this point he’s all ready to go, she’s clearly not, and for a moment the ugliness around the edges of this dance rushes to center stage. She manages to wriggle out from underneath him, but the two end up sitting far apart and mad at each other.

The third segment I found more curious, more adolescent, and ultimately somewhat less resonant than the first two. Two men (Arthur Armijo and Jeff Lepore) vie for the attention of a woman (Eileen Thomas). They take turns slow dancing to the music–Percy Sledge’s rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman”–and there’s a lot of teasing and taunting as partners are switched: who will ultimately be left out? There’s a lot of the cruelty of adolescents, who will shove their successful amorous adventures in the faces of those less fortunate, and a lot of adolescent self-absorption (a mirror has been added to the set). Of course whoever’s excluded can always look in the mirror, can always dance with himself or herself–indeed, may have been doing so all along.

It’s not unusual to see social dances on a concert dance stage, but the choreographer’s focus is more often on what he or she can make of dance conventions than on what the dancers’ moves reveal about their personalities. In Arena (1986), three men and three women shift moves and partners as different big-band numbers are played; each dancer has a consistent character that is betrayed by a small set of repeated quirky movements or idiosyncrasies of style. One man (Dorfman) is continually warming up and showing off with small pelvic thrusts, hands on hips, and then smoothing his hair back. He’s a little Latino Napoleon, the short but all-conquering hero (at least in his own mind). A woman (Goodrich) is the kind of windup female who’s immobile unless her partner shows her exactly what to do; she comes alive only when she dances with another woman.

There’s no question Marshall has an eye for the revelatory gesture, and a sense of fun that makes her throw unlikely characters together just to see what will happen. Frequently the results seem surprising even to her, and I think that’s what makes her dances occasionally appear rudderless. Arena went on too long, and I believe it’s because after a while, although the permutations are still surprising, you start to wonder where they’re headed. What is the overarching vision? Why have these characters been brought together? In Arena Marshall is like the brilliant magpie writer who can snatch whole characters–their conversations, mannerisms, and life histories–from the air but can’t make them add up to a story.

Judging by The Aerialist (1987) and the excerpt from Interior With Seven Figures (1988) that was performed, Marshall is moving toward a narrative form that would give her characters a context and make us care about what happens to them. I did not find these two pieces particularly successful, however. They’re like mysteries in which the reader is given enough clues to suspect something very specific behind the scenes, but insufficient information to figure out what it is. Perhaps this is what Marshall intended, but the mimed vomiting that goes on in the family drama of Interior, for example, suggests so many specific scenarios (are the two sons chronically ill? do one or both attempt suicide?) that it actually distracts from the dance’s emotional power. Our brains are busy–wondering what’s going on and why–instead of our hearts.

Yet Interior contains some powerful images: the way that the parents jack up their fallen son from the floor, for instance, by inserting his brother and themselves beneath his limp form, making a kind of human sandwich that brilliantly evokes the nuclear family’s loyalty to each other–and its claustrophobia. Gravity plays an important metaphorical role in Interior–it’s a constant drag on the characters, a malignant force they fight continually and hopelessly. In this dance gravity makes visible how other people, especially those we love, can be burdens: difficult as it is to stand up ourselves, we must still gather up those who are weaker, even as they sink over and over out of our grasp to the floor.

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