Bryan Saner, Shaun Gilmore, and Martha Channer

at Columbia College Dance Center

June 19 and 20, 1987

“Source,” the title of a recent program of new work, implies that the three choreographers’ shared background in the visual arts informs their dance making. In fact the common denominator seemed to be their inexperience, and its diverse forms here — odd, luxuriant growths as well as dead ends — are the real source of wonder.

Bryan Saner, who performed solo in his own choreography, dances with tires. Of course, there’s a long tradition of dancing with inanimate objects (umbrellas, coat racks, chairs) — but it still comes as something of a shock to see Saner lope across the stage after a rolling tire, as in the 1986 Firestone, or hoist a bunch into a tall, rhythmically bobbing stack.

Saner’s pieces are a bit of a three-ring circus. While he’s playing with tires, he talks. In a monologue that’s part story, part conversation, part poem and sermon, he gathers the strands together. Places, the premiere, has the more successful, coherent monologue: it begins with an account of a “lucky intersection” where Saner always gets a green light. He can’t even recall what’s at the intersection because he’s always going through it at breakneck speed. He ends with a parable about a merchant and an angel: if the merchant will meet the angel at a particular place, a place where the material and celestial worlds intersect, the angel will grant him the opportunity to “benefit the world.” Through some quotidian chance, the merchant misses his opportunity. The sparkling, spotlit tires, both industrial artifacts and halos encircling and blessing a small space, are the perfect metaphors for those times and places when the world can change, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Saner’s pieces have humor, a subtle and affecting religious undercurrent, and energy. What they don’t have is dance. Tall and a bit ungainly, Saner has big hands, big feet, a big nose. His spiky blond hair makes him look like a kid with too many cowlicks and a bad haircut. There are no costume credits for his pieces because in one he wears jeans, T-shirt, and vest and in the other a bowling shirt and pants.

None of this precludes dance, of course, but the intention and execution of Saner’s movements do more or less put dance out of the question. Language and the manipulation of visual images are primary to this artist, I think; when he moves, he’s acting out his story in a kind of mime, like the storyteller whose gestures illustrate his tale. (At several points in Places, Saner literally shifts gears, miming driving a car.) Furthermore, Saner’s execution lacks the precision and control we expect in dance. Partly because of his energy, he seems always on the verge of losing control–his arms flail, his feet don’t point or flex, he almost loses his balance several times. Still, part of Saner’s charm (and his message) is this awkwardness — he’s a true amateur of dance. And when he turns to the audience at the ends of his pieces, his bony face lit up with intelligence and a goofy inspiration, he really connects.

Shaun Gilmore’s dances, on the other hand, are so polished, so cool, that they deflect audience involvement. Her premiere, Tru-Link, an ambitious piece for eight dancers accompanied by South African “township” music, was attractive but monotonous and difficult to interpret. The costumes (each dancer wore tattered black and white strips of gauzy material) and the choreography (often half the group leapt up and the other half groveled) suggested a racial theme, but that’s as far as I got. A 1986 piece on the program, Line/Balance, was more comprehensible: it suggested that Gilmore uses abstraction to circumvent emotionality (and that in Tru-Link she went a bit too far — especially considering the possibilities offered by the marvelously stirring music).

In Line/Balance, two strips of masking tape run together diagonally across the floor, brightly lit and resembling a highway median. Two dancers, Rebecca Forde and Dennis Wise, confront each other along this line, struggling to maintain a foothold, to not fall into the “void” on either side of their “balance beam.” Gilmore has said that the “line on stage becomes the metaphor for that symbolic line one is constantly balancing in order to live with another.”

Unfortunately, the viewer needs such a gloss, because the emotional content of the dance is so thoroughly obscured by its abstract presentation. In most of the choreography, Forde and Wise mirror each other, or they balance in cool, geometric opposition. Their precise, jerky movements are almost robotic. (This regimented precision wastes Forde’s wonderful elasticity; it’s also a precision that Wise can’t quite attain.) The costumes, designed by Gilmore, reinforce the abstraction: like the bisected stage, the dancers are cut in half. She wears a white top and a black bottom, he wears a black top and a white bottom, and each wears one black and one white sock. The idea of opposition is emphasized, but the costuming also makes top and bottom, left and right, front and back, male and female mere accidents of space and geometry.

The viewer longs for the dancers to break out of this regimentation, and at the end they do: starting at opposite ends of the line, each runs toward the other, ripping up a strip of tape, until they meet in the middle and drop their strips into a little crumpled heap. It’s a striking image, but the emotional resonance is too little, too late.

Whereas Gilmore’s dances are fastidiously unemotional, and suffer from that, Martha Channer’s enter freely into the emotions but in a way that’s often girlish and trite. Both of her works were premieres. In the first, Looking Forward-Looking Back, Channer opens with an acted, not danced, scene in which she sorts through a desk, throwing out or keeping things in preparation for a move. An old letter brings on a reverie; Channer then dances to guitar music and lyrics by Amy Lowe (written and performed especially for this work) about a summer romance. The choreography looks like stretching exercises; the whole piece is literal and self-absorbed. The program notes provide an entirely superfluous subtitle: “Contemplation on the edge of change.”

Channer’s second dance, Return to the Garden (perhaps a reference to Martha Graham’s Embattled Garden), is more successful but still lightweight. As part of this “modern conception” of the Biblical myth, as Channer calls it, Adam’s and Eve’s division after the fall is represented as a tiff: Eve (Channer), seated on the floor with her back to Adam (Michael McGinn), sniffs and turns her head away, won’t look at him or let him touch her, while he coyly crawls after her. (Even the idea of the fortunate fall requires some conception of the tragic.)

Again, the choreography is self-serving: often McGinn is a mere stationary foil to Channer. When the piece does work, it’s when Channer allows McGinn to really dance with her, in the final scene of sexual temptation (performed to a breathy, accelerating pipe music). Too often, Channer moves in an isolated splendor, like an animal miraculously conscious of its own grace but not developed enough to be aware of anything else. But here, because she was engaged with someone else, Channer’s powerful body — she’s tall, broad- shouldered, and long-limbed — is shown to real advantage. And here I liked Channer’s style: you can see her muscles tense and relax, can see her breathe; the animal has undergone a complete, not a partial, transformation.