at the Dance Center of Columbia College

April 22 and 23, 1988

No dance experience is worse than an evening of dull solo performance; conversely, a successful one is matchless. It’s difficult for solo dance artists to arouse and hold their audiences’ interest. Some rely on charisma, others on virtuosity, still others exploit their idiosyncrasies. Very few dare deal with only the bones of dance: the pulses and silences of a score, the width and depth of the performance space, the essential movements we lump together as “locomotor”–walking, skipping, hopping. Robert Small, who appeared recently at the Dance Center of Columbia College, is charismatic, virtuosic, and idiosyncratic–his dancing makes us pay attention. But it is Small’s choreographic strength, especially his willingness to bare the simple materials of his dances–their muscles, sinews, and bones–that makes his work both interesting and satisfying.

Summer Dance is as gently evocative as its title, as simple and plain. Small is an exquisitely accomplished technician–so accomplished and confident that he needn’t call our attention to the mechanics of his dancing. When he crosses the stage, his sole concern is the movement–not what expression he is wearing, whether the house is full or not, or how to make a smooth transition to the next section. He is entirely in and of the moment. Small succeeds in making the dancer transparent, throwing the dance into crystalline relief.

Summer Dance is about relaxation, release, and dancing for the sheer joy of dancing. It’s as easy and comfortable as a walk down the lakefront in a cool June twilight. Small wears plain blue trousers and a softly rippling silky shirt. His pliant, floppy wrists contrast vividly with the tight, small, precise steps he takes and the great circle he carves backward across the stage. A burst of energy lifts his arms; they float down gently and quietly. In every movement, each joint is articulated separately: Small’s body has no tension or stress; he uses only the energy each movement requires. A large jump forward into plie alters with each repetition: the gesturing leg extends straight behind, then straight in front, then bends in front. A slow, controlled stretch appears out of nowhere–some energy draws Small earthward but snaps suddenly, and he’s off again on those fast little feet.

Summer Dance sometimes stalls. The many repetitions of unornamented locomotor movement describing great diagonals do eventually wear. The accents in Aaron Copland’s score are too often predictably married to the accents of the dance–a twitch of an elbow here, the tic of a wrist there. After a while, the pattering feet threaten to parody the choreography of Murray Louis (in whose company Small danced eight years) instead of presenting the work of Robert Small.

But the honesty and immediacy of Small’s performance style, and the care and craft of the choreography’s small movements and gestures, keep Summer Dance vibrant. He places his hands together, palms up, in front of his chest; slowly raises them and places his chin upon them; the hands come away with all the tenderness of a blown kiss. Again and again, a certain diminutive balance appears, torso curved and limbs bent as if to embrace an invisible sphere. And the last thing we see is the return of that relaxed, drifting wrist.

Mutemaze begins with a brilliant swath of light cutting diagonally across the stage. Dennis Cady’s costume–a neon yellow unitard punctuated with bands of red and black–bares one shoulder, describing another diagonal. Small traces the light’s path with a measured tread, his mouth opening and closing in sync with the blips and pings of the electronic score (by Ormiston and Weingarten), his eyes scanning the audience. The lights warm the remainder of the stage as a small tremor shakes his ankle, travels up one leg into his torso, then through his shoulder and out through his wrist. It starts again, seizing his entire body this time. Energy flashes out his arms as he does a double take at the audience; he looks straight out, mute mouth working. Then a hand appears in his peripheral vision; he watches its spidery spread fingers settle on his head, apparently unaware the hand is his own.

A second alien hand–again his own–swims up to cover his face. Briefly he stands still and poised, unaffected by the hand trembling violently at the end of his arm; suddenly the vibration takes over all of him.

Mutemaze is more diagonal than mazy, but gains spatial complexity as it grows more dramatic. Small is also an accomplished and subtle mime, and he devises clever physical solutions to the problem facing the solo performer interested in creating a dramatic situation–the lack of another person. Three times that alien hand grabs his shoulder; three times he shrugs it off and stalks away, using a slightly different walk each time. His arms extend and round to encircle–embrace? imprison?–the unseen other in this unspecified conflict. When the general lighting fades and the harsh white diagonal reappears, his hands move over his face–shielding, smothering, cradling–a very sad and quiet close.

The strength of Summer Dance is kinesthetic, of Mutemaze dramatic; the strength of Remembered Echoes is intellectual. The movement and staging are highly allusive, whether deliberately or accidentally I wouldn’t dare say. One could use Remembered Echoes to illustrate almost all the lessons in space, rhythm, and texture Louis Horst (Martha Graham’s musical director) taught–the lessons we seem to have spent the 60s unlearning–or Rudolph Laban’s theories about space, harmony, and flux. But then one could just as easily trace phrase by phrase the influence of Mary Wigman, Hanya Holm, or Murray Louis through this dance. Or even see in Remembered Echoes everything we know about Isadora Duncan–her use of light, of scarves, of space, her stripped and simplified movement vocabulary. Small must be an extremely well educated choreographer, one aware of and open to the rich and resonant tradition of modern dance, the tradition we so often neglect.

Remembered Echoes begins with a liquid spill of Chopin piano music; Small walks in a pool of orange light upstage, then in a pool center stage, then in one downstage. Energy trickles down his shoulders, arms, forearms, and wrists before his hands flick it away. One hand tethers his focus and his force: his neglected body can do nothing but trace a circle around that stationary hand, like a crab scuttling around one claw pinned in the cracked boards of the pier. He sinks, tries to sit, one hand placed meditatively alongside his cheek, but the energy pulses through his spine and propels him to stand. A hovering, storklike balance with the body curling round an unseen sphere–one bent leg raised halfway up in front, bent arms and torso describing the space. He lifts his hands to cradle his skull, then throws the energy away. Small shakes his head and waves his forearms in front of his face as if waving away something small, horrible, and airborne; he backs away. Again he walks downstage; balances, pulling hands and feet close to his torso, and extends. He gathers his extremities again; as the second extension peaks, he bats something away and again backs off, now in a twisting, bent handstand.

In the second section, also set to Chopin, Small removes his shirt, wheels across the stage in a series of quick, stepping turns–and two orange scarves tied together suddenly appear in his hand. He kneels in the pool of light, arches. The scarves arc through space as he turns. Small drops the scarves and Chopin at the same time.

Beginning with a loud blur of sound, the third section has an altogether different texture. He pulls first a red scarf, then a purple one from his trouser pockets. One foot steps, the other drags in a great arc out to the side and to the front. He stuffs the scarves back into his pockets, each movement of his hands accompanied by a tilt of the pelvis. His foot slides out to the side, apparently of its own volition. His empty hands cradle his face, then he bursts into a fast walk, head wagging side to side with each step. One arm, freed of gravity, drifts up; the other follows it. He floats in utter stillness while one foot raises itself inches off the floor and wriggles madly. Again he arches into the light. He lifts the forgotten scarves and puts them into his mouth. He hops; they flap, a weird orange tongue. The electronic blurs come closer together now. He turns and drops the scarf.

In the last section, Small walks backward into the far pool of light. Snippets of piano music accompany his slow seated stretch. Shoulders throb–one, both, the other. An elbow twitches. He pushes up onto one hand and knee, sinks slightly, resting on one hip, one arm extended–a posture reminiscent of Adam reaching toward the hand of God in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A series of implosions of breath curl him round into an egg; the egg pulses. Suddenly he is flipped onto his back, straight arms and legs flailing briefly, then melting slowly. Wrists collapse, ankles sickle, feet turn in, limbs liquefy–Small’s beautiful dancer’s body warped, twisted, painfully skewed. A pained, painful, and riveting image.