at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 9-11

If you wanted to put Doug Elkins in a box, you could use words like “postmodernism” and “appropriation” to describe the crazy way he mixes dance styles from one moment to the next: hip-hop and flamenco, ballet and break dancing. Like a magpie he picks up a bit of string here, an old ribbon there, a piece of straw, then weaves them into an eclectic whole. But more important than the busy, mind-grabbing, rather trendy surface of this New York choreographer’s dances is the current of energy and feeling underneath.

Beneath The Patrooka Variations, from 1988, runs a dark current of joy. Using primarily break-dance moves and flamenco, Elkins celebrates the electricity of inspired dancing, our sense that the impulse comes from outside the dancer, not within. Elkins himself performs an itchy opening solo showing how the break dancer isolates movement in different areas of the body, as if a current crackled through his waving arms or spun him like a top on the floor. Flamenco is similar–when I saw Maria Benitez several years ago (also at the Dance Center), the clapping, singing, and playing of the flamenco guitarist and vocalist seemed to drive her like a gusting wind.

But being controlled from the outside isn’t always pleasant or ecstatic. In The Patrooka Variations one man passes his hand like a magic wand over another man lying down, making each body part writhe in turn, then mimes spitting on him. In an earlier section, a quartet performed on two chairs, one dancer sits in another’s lap and his or her hands are grabbed, arms manipulated–it’s sexual in an icky kind of way. Flamenco’s antagonistic sexuality–near the end of The Patrooka Variations a man pulls a woman’s head back sharply by the hair–also suits Elkins’s subtheme, the creepy excitement of being manipulated, controlled from the outside. (I assume the word “patrooka” is a goofy take on “Petrushka,” the puppet character from Fokine’s ballet.)

But that creepy excitement is only a subtheme–the dance is primarily joyful, even hilarious. The humor comes partly from Elkins’s quicksilver changes from one dance idiom to another, so rapid as to leave us gasping, and partly from his strange juxtapositions of music: James Brown shading into rough-hewn, passionate flamenco guitar, then into a highly polished soprano in a song from Bizet’s Carmen, a voice that appears and reappears and sometimes comes across as camp and other times as the purest ecstasy and drama. Whatever else he may be, Elkins is a tremendously musical choreographer: his dancers accent and counterpoint the music with thrilling precision. They’re also daredevils: in the final section, for eight of the troupe’s nine dancers, people are flung into the air, run up each other’s legs and torsos like Evel Knievil about to take off, leap across half the stage into each other’s arms. In some ways The Patrooka Variations is episodic–several of its many sections, separated by blackouts, end abruptly with Prince’s “Shut up! . . . damn” from the 1999 double album–but in another way the busy surface is not the point. The point is the energy, and the only way we can see it is in these continual transformations.

The 1992 The Stuff of Recoiling is more mellow–maybe it’s the influence of the often Eastern-sounding music by David Byrne and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The choreography mixes hip-hop, break dancing, Indian classical dance, and modern, with the occasional chasse or balance thrown in for good measure. The lyrical, bouncy opening section is lovely, and there are several highly charged motifs, among them a one-handed cartwheel with a kick, and a headfirst, no-handed dive between another dancer’s legs. But overall the dancing is less energetic and the intent less clear than in The Patrooka Variations. Some of the music is annoyingly conventional, like movie music or a triumphal 19th-century march: did Elkins mean it to come across as campy? Certainly the brief, spotlighted ending is strange. Suddenly a woman is kneeling before a man who clasps the back of her head with one hand in what looks like a pose for a White Shoulders ad. At the same time the image is genuinely dramatic and affecting.

Elkins’s most recent work, More Wine for Polyphemus, divides the elements of The Patrooka Variations–the parody and camp, the straightforward energy–into larger, more discrete parts. The first two sections are introduced by a man in voice-over fussily describing the songs of two birds. But the nonsense phrase he uses to “duplicate” the warbling vireo’s call is nothing like the recorded bird song; and the “whinny call” of the Eastern screech owl is illustrated by James Brown screaming. The point? Perhaps that translation of various languages is continual, and the connection between translation and original often mysterious.

The prissy voice sets us up for Elkins’s parodic treatment of ballet in More Wine: the first section, to choral music by Handel, begins with the dancers in a simple ballet pose, feet in third, arms in first; then they break into hip-hop. A male-female duet disintegrates–she looks disgusted, not at all into these conventional sex roles. The second section, danced to James Brown, involves a similar mix of hip thrusts and fifth-position releves, arabesques and Jackson-style crotch grabbing. (Only here did Elkins’s musical sense seem to break down: the combination of Brown’s pumping and the dancers’ balletic moves might sound amusing, but it was surprisingly monotonous.)

Elkins drops parody in the third section, again danced to Handel–unless he’s parodying the Paul Taylor of Esplanade, which this section strongly resembles, with its simple runs, drops to the floor, and shifts in direction. There’s a bleakness, a despairing undertone to More Wine that may come partly from the parody: maybe Elkins, like other young people, is afflicted by the sense that older generations have somehow used up all the resources. At any rate, a despairing edge reappears in the final section, danced to a druggy Led Zeppelin wall of noise. Here the dancers’ break-dance spins on the floor are arrested, frozen into pretzel shapes that emphasize the form’s contortions, not its energy.

It almost seems that Elkins’s mercurial surface, his borrowing of dance styles and idiosyncratic remixing of music, is purposely evasive. He’s so musical a choreographer that the fractured structure of his scores almost ensures a lack of structure in the dances: beginnings and endings, crescendos and diminuendos can seem haphazard. Clearly he’s absolutely brilliant at appropriating and combining whatever styles he brushes up against, and it does seem unkind to complain that someone so charming is also sort of slippery. I sensed in Elkins something of the clever Odysseus–the small, vulnerable man who outwits the Cyclops with wine and trickery. But Elkins is strong and smart enough to come out into the open.

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