at the Josephine Louis Theatre of Northwestern University, August 15

For a lot of people a lot of the time it’s hard to separate dancing from sexuality. The attention dancers and choreographers give the body is so complete and so loving that even dances explicitly “about” other subjects can take on a sexual aura. Maybe for that reason I sometimes have problems with dance that’s blatantly or too conventionally “about” sex. And jazz dance–with its pelvic thrusts, its vibrations and convulsions, its cheesy, sex-sells Broadway style–is often one of the worst offenders.

Which really isn’t a fair way to begin talking about the recent “Dance Evanston ’93”: it rarely approximated that glitzy look. Though the program was presented by the king of this form, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and all three choreographers have their roots in jazz, two of them are clearly exploring new territory.

The one who remained well within traditional jazz territory was Giordano company member Joseph C. Mann. His solo, Little Earthquakes, uses pop music (by Tori Amos) and a highly dramatic, athletic technique to communicate heartbreak. A single bare light bulb hanging stage center sets the mood, revealing Mann at first only in silhouette, his back to us, arms wrapped around his waist, “jazz hands” like starfish jutting from his sides. The body rippling up represents longing; convulsions mean despair. Mann is a terrific dancer in this style, taut and tense, but does it make sense to express romantic anguish with a bounding stag leap into the air, then a crash to the floor? Dance like this seems to me technique masquerading as emotion, and as a result the sexuality embodied comes across as luridly solipsistic.

Sam Watson, once a member of the Giordano company, hasn’t done straight jazz dance for several years, but you can see a jazz influence in his use of pop music and the occasional layout or pelvic thrust. What he does best, however, is parody jazz dance. Older works like Wired and Badum Boom are brief comic masterpieces, lampooning the marionette energy and sexuality of this form, but unfortunately none of the three new works here come up to this standard. The trio Forever Changing, to music by Depeche Mode, is notable for its occasional bits of street dance and for a strange goose step, and Front to Back–Back to Front, a duet for two men, for its strange costumes (divided down the middle) and acrobatic tumbling. Though some pelvic twitches underscore the drumbeats in Neneh Cherry’s music in Front to Back, neither of these dances is particularly funny, and perhaps they’re not meant to be. But they’re not much of anything else either.

You can see the old, wild Watson much better in Two Ladies, a Blind Man, and a Sleazeball. This three-part dance tells a little story about two women getting picked up at a bus stop: a prim woman in a shirtwaist dress by a sleazeball in an orange jacket and psychedelic pants, and a sexy woman in a short, tight, fringed black dress by a blind man. Watson has a lot of fun with the tango music (Arthur Lyman) and vintage rock (Little Richard and the Chips) and with the “blind” guy, who eyes the babe’s every move. And once again he lampoons blatant sexuality: just look at the sleazeball, whose tongue literally hangs out of his mouth and who’s constantly rubbing himself all over, and the sexy woman with her twitching, gyrating hips. But the parody’s too broad and the targets are too stereotyped for the dance to be more than a wham, bam, thank you ma’am event.

James Kelly has choreographed some very traditional jazz dances for the Giordano company, but two of his three works on this program are distinct departures: only In Rare Form looks like same old, same old. With its mimed kisses and meaningful crotch-to-ankle caresses of the leg, this large ensemble piece is the sort of dance that shouts when maybe it should have whispered. It didn’t help that the work looked seriously underrehearsed: the night I saw it, In Rare Form certainly wasn’t.

Much more impressive were two dances whose style is more a balletic form of modern dance than jazz. Kelly’s 4 on a Clarinet (performed to some lovely Aaron Copland music, the Concerto for Clarinet and Piano) starts slowly, with some heavy-duty, almost laborious partnering between a couple and some rather slow, almost ceremonial movements by the two women who accompany them like a teeny corps. Gradually the dance gets more lively as the music does, taking on the tang of the American west as Copland’s compositions so often do. Eventually the dancers are running with arms pumping vigorously and jumping into the air with legs flung forward and straight and that little twist to the hips that seems to say “cowboy.” There are some curiously evocative movements in this dance, from the hand placed contemplatively on a dancer’s own shoulder to a delicate hoisting of the dancer’s own leg with both hands in a straightening, smoothing motion from crotch to ankle–a motion that recalls the caresses of In Rare Form but without their overt sexual content.

Like 4 on a Clarinet, Kelly’s Untitled Duet takes a little while to get going, but eventually all the dance’s hard edges are smoothed away: the opening lifts and catches, the supported fish dives–essentially one bit of athletic partnering after another, without a context or meaning–are replaced by serene solos, each dancer dancing for the benefit of the other. Meanwhile the score–a woman’s gorgeous singing in the third movement of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony, A Symphony of Sorrowful Songs–cycles hypnotically, drawing us into the dance’s melancholy.

In Untitled Duet Kelly had the confidence to create open spaces, to offer quieter movement, even stillness onstage: one dancer kneels to watch the other or kneels turning away (just that simple difference in orientation opens up worlds of possible meaning). The quietness also frees the dancers to really see each other–crucial in this love duet. Arturo Alvarez and Joseph Pantaleon are superb in this piece: collected, confident, and connected in a way that borders on the aloof but communicates all the better for that. Untitled Duet is an unusual work, a measured dance without embraces, without any overtly sexual content, that reveals the heart of sexual love. And Kelly doesn’t make a big deal out of the fact it’s between two men–only their brief stare out into the audience near the end seems a challenge. Less is more.