at the Dance Center of Columbia College

July 24 and 25

Paula Frasz has the kind of daring, the raunchy, wild merriment just under the skin, the wicked talent for observation that I value in my friends. Striking out on her own after several years of dancing with Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, she presented a concert last weekend at the Dance Center that clearly showed her roots in that company: Frasz’s choreography and dancing are intensely theatrical, but less abstract and more accessible than Mordine’s. “Dancing With People From My Brain” was also intensely personal–which may account for the feeling I had that I’d made a new friend.

It’s not so much that Frasz tells us anything new as that she finds fresh ways of telling old stories. Eggs (1988) is about a love triangle. It begins with Frasz reciting Woody Allen’s quip about his crazy brother who thinks he’s a chicken: the family would like to put him away but they can’t do without the eggs. And so it is with relationships, we need the eggs. The story is ancient–there’s a woman about to be abandoned (Frasz), a two-timing man (Lesley Jones), and a young interloper (Jill Sarmento)–but Frasz illuminates the humor in it with deft, unexpected physical details. The dance is set to tango music, and the dancers’ gestures are often histrionic, hackneyed, archly noble in set tableaux. At other times the performers behave shamelessly. When the younger woman sits astride the man, who’s lying on his back, we see his forearms shoot out and vibrate, fingers splayed, as if he’s been hit by lightning; when the older woman mounts him in the same way he drums the floor with his fingertips. Moments later Frasz’s deadpan stare at the audience completes the joke.

Frasz’s sense of humor is not exactly PC. Still, she knows how to undercut the conventional side of her own worldview. Shoulder Pads (1991) shows us three women (Gretchen Baker, Frasz, and Colleen Halloran) who are aggressive, competitive, and strong until a man (Jack Cargerman) arrives on the scene, when they go gaga. The message is very clear–desire makes women abandon their feminist ideals–but the way Frasz characterizes the object of desire sets the whole scenario at a comic distance. This “regular guy” is a jerk, in love only with his car, his Playboy, and his penis (nicely evoked when he blows up a long, thin pink balloon). So when we hear Peggy Lee crooning “The Boy From Ipanema” and see these three tough broads swoon at the regular guy’s feet, Frasz sends more than the obvious reactionary message.

This choreographer also shows a talent for serious, even tragic tales. In Still Life (1990) a woman drags an obviously lifeless body from one side of the stage to the other, cradling her, resting on her as on a pillow, arranging the corpse’s hands in an attempt at a final good-bye that degenerates into hysterical manipulation of the dead body. Marisa LaRette is remarkable for her physical relaxation, her lifelike depiction of death, and Ann Boyd is very moving as the hopeless mourner. (Still Life II, made this year, is not nearly as successful: with four performers and a more kinetic style, it loses focus and begins to look like a grief contest.)

Frasz fully realizes her talent for tales told in gesture with A Lark in the Morning (1992), a story of estrangement and conflict between a mother (Frasz) and daughter (Halloran). Telling gestures abound: the mother kneading her forearms, arms crossed over her chest, looking away from the daughter; and later the tender, imploring, irritating way she touches the girl’s hair. To that layer of gestural story telling Frasz adds another that relies and elaborates on the emotional undercurrents of the mother’s Irish step dancing: the rigidly perpendicular upper body, arms held stiffly down at the sides, shows restraint, resignation, an utter determination to repress the self, while the body’s vitality positively bursts out of the tapping, kicking feet. Meanwhile the work’s traditional Irish music, arranged and sung by Frasz and Winston Damon, has a keening, off-kilter sound, almost a bagpipe’s wheeze: in it we hear Beckett, not the Rovers.

Admiring the wide emotional range Frasz evoked, I wished she could somehow bring it all together in a longer piece. She’s taken a step in that direction with her premiere, Calling All Catholics, but unfortunately this work, like the concert as a whole, seems a pastiche. Set up as a sort of vaudevillian revue, with one nun at a pump organ and another on Rollerblades carrying placards announcing the scenes, it feels episodic and joky from the start. The text (by Frasz and the cast) is full of the kind of silly humor I love (“Hail Mary, full of grapes”), and the piece overflows with the visual jokes at which Frasz is so adept: the bored schoolchildren being plucked into the wings during “Purgatory,” the mother’s brief panting when she drops another kid (literally) in “The Rhythm Method.” Overall there’s something childishly gleeful and naive about this dance–it’s especially evident in the hectic movement of “Sin,” which offers the perspective of a hyperactive child on what it means to be bad. But that tone makes it difficult to shift into a serious gear, as Frasz attempts to do at the end. It doesn’t help that the penultimate section, “Confession,” treats a priest’s seduction of a young boy as a joke.

Though Calling All Catholics ends a little sentimentally, that vein doesn’t run throughout Frasz’s work: consider the astringent, surreal Circus (1988), a solo for Frasz to six poems by Netta Gillespie. The structure is readily perceptible–Frasz dances each poem in a separate spotlit area, the spots moving to the rear of the stage and then back downstage, and she gradually removes articles of her vibrant ringmaster’s costume until she’s stripped down to a black bra and underpants. The poems, read by Christine Veach in a deep, suggestive voice with plenty of erotic undertones, seem to draw an analogy between a circus star’s waning powers and death (though I’m sure there are nuances and complexities I missed). Meanwhile a recording of circus music plays softly behind the voice, winding down during the fifth poem as if the turntable were slipping.

One of the pleasures of this piece is the way it layers rhythms: the circus music’s cheerful martial beat, heard faintly; Veach’s voice purling through the caverns of Gillespie’s words; and Frasz’s emblematic, isolated motions. Her actions often echo the verbs in the poem but, oddly, end up seeming metaphoric rather than literal. And sometimes her movements are clearly metaphoric, as when she pushes her head with one hand, lower and lower, almost to the floor, while repeatedly struggling to extend a leg: a vivid picture of the burden of age, which can seem maddeningly self-imposed. And when finally Frasz slouches in the sixth ring, brutally lit to reveal every imperfection and smoking a cigarette, executing “noble” gestures with the utmost cynicism, paradoxically she is noble, unforgiving and true.