at the Atheneaum Theatre, February 12

“Lift-off,” the launch commander says at that mysterious point when an earthbound craft becomes airborne–and we know something great and irreducible has been achieved. Lift-off in dance, when something carries the work beyond everyday reality and into the ether, is equally mysterious, yet no one has to tell you when it’s happened: you know because your heart and mind suddenly pick up speed and time disappears.

I thought about such things watching the Zephyr Dance Ensemble at the Athenaeum Theatre: the work kept lifting off only to settle back to earth. What were the little boosts that made it sometimes more than mere bodies moving onstage? Certainly a clever idea goes a long way: in her Numbers Game Emily Stein looks at the way dancers are always counting, whether in class or onstage as they try to get the choreographer’s rhythms right. And she doesn’t let the idea just lie there: the dance progresses from strict counts imposed on stiff steps–ballet positions–to numbers internalized and expressive, the dancers stamping, clapping, and slapping out rhythms. In between they dance to a voice-over of addition facts sung in a sweet melody, to the childhood rhyme “No more monkeys jumping on the bed,” and to their own chanting of counts of seven.

Maureen Janson’s Mallet Ballet starts with a clever idea, however, and goes nowhere. Her dancers use mallets and balls to re-create the polite veneer of croquet and reveal its cutthroat heart. There’s a story of sorts, but it’s not easy to follow. And the combination of modern dance, croquet moves, and mimed interactions is odd without being fun. The idea in Paul Cipponeri’s Quieter and Deeper Than seems old: new-age nature music, tropical-print pants, and familiar solemn choreography make this a pretty ho-hum effort.

In dance, clever ideas alone never do the trick–it’s clever, interesting movement that pulls us in. But here’s another mystery: Zephyr artistic director Michelle Kranicke can create great stretches of flat, rather dull movement, then suddenly capture our wandering attention. And she has an intriguing tendency to thwart expectations, though too often she doesn’t go far enough. Consider her solo C’est Pas du Tout Evident, danced by Caroline Walsh to women singing a traditional Finnish folk song. The music’s lines and rhythms are so sinuous and lilting, full of little catches and circles, that I thought it was Middle Eastern, a harem song sung by women for women, a song that took for granted folds of flesh and small, subtle motions. But the choreography is mostly standard-issue modern dance–big, clean, extroverted swings of the legs and arms. Only every once in a while is there a rolled pelvis or cocked hip. It’s as if Kranicke had said, I’m not going to go along with the female undulations of the music, but hadn’t created anything new to take their place.

The premiere Kranicke choreographed and dances with Stein is similarly surprising, but not ultimately successful. In Percussion Notebook #1 the stage is littered with instruments: a giant xylophone, cymbals, a drum set. So we’re primed for noise and excitement. But Kranicke–who along with Stein occasionally plays the onstage music with composer-musician Tom Jasek–mostly exploits the instruments’ tentative, thoughtful side, bowing the edge of a cymbal to produce an eerie whine, for example. At other times the dance is humorous, as when Jasek walks with a child’s noisemaking toy across the stage. But why push the toy twice? And why have the dancers run in opposite circles both times? (After watching several of Kranicke’s dances, I thought I was going to scream if I saw one more run to fill up time and eat up space.) If this dance isn’t driven and exciting, what is it? Episodic and too restrained, Percussion Notebook #1 remains inert.

What I like in Kranicke’s choreography is her occasional wildness–her own dancing sometimes looks like it might spin out of control. All Alone by Myself in My Bedroom, set to a pastiche of Beatles songs not sung by the Beatles, seems much bigger than the quartet it is, maybe because it has lots of entrances and exits and the dancers are constantly changing their weird costumes (by Christy Munch): bathrobes, fringed jammies. Here Kranicke seems to have thrown caution and ideas to the winds, creating a dance as stuffed with movement as the title is with words. And the continual changes in the music, as if someone were playing with a radio dial, create changes in mood and interest.

All on its own music can lift a dance out of the ordinary, filling the stage with its own character and giving the piece a color and feeling it wouldn’t otherwise have. Kranicke makes good choices for The Race–Claude Debussy, John Adams, Ron Carter–but in other respects the piece falters. The opening section, in which Amanda McCann bounces a ball around the stage, reminded me of Janson’s Mallet Ballet, oddly juxtaposing everyday motions and modern dance–I’d rather watch someone really play croquet or toss a ball, actions that are at least spontaneous and open-ended. In the second section the red ball “turns into” a red scarf, which Stein and Walsh play with; I was reminded, sadly, of Jules Feiffer’s cartoon modern dancers.

But in the third section we got a puff of cold, fresh air when McCann leapt across the stage, slapping her thighs at the high points. This section bears the marks of Kranicke’s wildness, and McCann’s dancing gives the piece the lift-off it needs. This woman is a wonder: short, with the kind of big legs and chubby arms we don’t usually see in dancers, McCann also has an uncommon stage presence, strength, precision of movement, and musicality. She can just stand there, moving her big toe in half circles over and over, and be mesmerizing. When she scoops the air, the movement has the definition and force of a spoon going through ice cream. Onstage with the other two, she made this a dance; and when she left (to get the ball again), it was two people going through the motions. They weren’t bad–throughout the concert the dancing was quite good–but McCann is unusually fine.

Fortunately the final piece on this program, Christy Munch’s Fit to Be Tied, had it all: ideas, music, dancing, choreography. Set to a mix of recorded music and text–traditional Irish and Scottish instrumentals, an Irish song, a tale told in a thick brogue–this dance for five has a feminist cast, playing with issues of strength and vulnerability. One motif is the dancer clasping her bicep in the traditional masculine muscle pose; in another, the dancer shrieks and grabs her crotch with militant modesty. Munch’s costumes–short, plaid pleated skirts and turtlenecks–make the performers look like sturdy schoolgirls, yet the skirts also balloon and swing playfully. But best is the thoughtful fun that’s gone into the choreography, Munch’s willingness and ability to create quirky, evocative phrases–the dancers kneeling like parochial school kids, but extending their arms and flapping their hands at the wrists. Or lying in a heap, kicking. Or walking, hunched over, arms held like calipers before them. Or dancing, not to the words of the Irish story but to the lilt in the language. Fit to Be Tied not only lifted off, it went into orbit and stayed there.