Pleasure Principles

Those Feet Were Meant for Dancing

When I walk into a theater to see an event billed as dance, I'm prepared to find performers talking a blue streak or singing or potting daisies or performing slow, painful tasks. But when I see something good that also reminds me what dancing can be at its most basic, I'm faint with pleasure.

On the first program of the Altogether Different series (at the Joyce through January 17), Seán Curran's 1997 Folk Dance for the Future affects me like that. Shining eyes; feet busy with lovely, sprightly jigging; fine rhythms and patterns— I don't want it to end. Curran, trained as an Irish step dancer, uses his postmodern sensibility to singe tradition. The dancing is performed barefoot— which softens its percussiveness— by a kilted crowd that sprints into easy pairings and formations less tight than the usual shoulder-to-shoulder lines. Curran avoids the studied virtuosity of the Riverdance crowd. The dancers may hold themselves erect and beat their feet in the air, but they turn cartwheels too. Heather Waldon improvises some charming little solos. When the sweet old voice of a traditional Mouth Music singer (Irish scat, sort of) drops into a lullaby, three families— male, female, and hetero— dandle baby dolls and train their tiny limbs to dance.

Curran's always been a striking performer. His sturdy body and precise, almost bustling style give him the air of a bantam rooster and bring to mind Jimmy Cagney during his dancing days. In fascinating solo excerpts from his 1995 Five Points of Articulation, Curran's a bundle of dramatic urges; no step goes unexamined for its emotional potential, even though the dancing itself is fervent and complicated. What impresses me in his Altogether Different program is the rapidity with which his group choreography has matured.

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Each of Both (1998), to Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Piano, is a little diffuse (a duet for Curran and Shawn Mahoney implies more meaning than you can grasp). But Curran achieves some striking effects, turning his company of 12 excellent performers into a community busy with diverse errands and tasks. For instance, Amy Brous and Donna Scro Gentile several times pass across the stage— first behind others, later in front. The style, established in a good opening duet for Waldon and Tony Guglietti, undermines the basically erect body; wheeling arms yank it off balance, spin it in new directions, and contribute to a bare hint of romantic abandon.

The brand new Symbolic Logic is a beauty. It shows the preoccupation with tidy designs that Curran may have picked up from the late Arnie Zane, a mentor of sorts when Curran danced with the Jones/Zane company. But it's gentler than most of Curran's work. At least that's the impression at the outset, when dancers in white unitards, eyes closed, semaphore cryptically. Designer Mark Randall lays a white ring on the floor, Philip W. Sandström illuminates it, and the voice of Indipop singer Sheila Chandra drips seductively sweet Indian syllables. Curran draws slow lunges from Indian martial arts, has the dancers sometimes curl their fingers into pseudo mudras, and uses walks that might have come from Cambodian dance. At one point all 10 line up and make their arms suggest a single turning wheel. These borrowings and allusions to Asian tradition don't seem eclectic, just part of the texture.

The Altogether Different series boosts choreographers who don't usually perform on New York's proscenium stages to a new level. Curran, who's been steadily upping his own level of achievement, deserves the new frame. And fills it.

The January installment of Martha @ Mother features a celebrity interview. "Martha Graham" (a/k/a Richard Move) interviews choreographer Murray Louis about his 44-year personal and professional relationship with Alwin Nikolais. Louis, a charmer and an adroit talker, launches a compliment: finally Martha Graham has acquired a body large enough to house her monumental spirit. The six-foot-three Move — elegantly gowned, a giant gold key topping a large bun of black hair— preens with genteel satisfaction.

One of the delights of this series is its blend of absurdity and seriousness. Louis, for instance, gives an earnest little speech about the mission of the dancer, which is not that far from the oracular pearls "Martha" drops from time to time. We listen to one gravely and howl at the other, always understanding the truth in both.

This time the Graham parodies that form the backbone of each of these shows feature a chorus of bare- buttocked men who dive lasciviously around Martha or march past her while she shudders with pleasure. Conflating Graham's Errand Into the Maze and Cave of the Heart, Move conquers the "Creature of Fear" (Reid Hutchins), but from Christopher Boyd's clever parody of a Noguchi set (the phallic spear of Judith joined to the "crotch" of Errand) she draws a red rope from the mouth of a coiled snake. Later, hemmed in by men, she pulls another red rope from her bosom and does a terrific imitation of Takako Asakawa's over-the-top mugging as Medea in the video of Cave. Clad in a striped dress, Move also cleverly depicts the earlier, archaically angular Graham of the 1932 Satyric Festival Song.

The Charles Atlas video compilation that serves as overture here features heard rhythms: tap dancers' feet, Mary Wigman pounding the floor in her Witch Dance, Watusi warriors, Nijinsky's Rite of Spring, etc. Ironically, the five introspective solos featured in Move's modern dance revue use very little footwork. Feet planted, Sandra Kaufmann sways and dips her body in a dramatically compelling if physically light performance of Doris Humphrey's 1931 Two Ecstatic Themes. Lance Gries, in an excerpt from a longer work to be performed at Danspace next week, makes his arms and legs snake around him and between his legs; his back to us most of the time, Gries makes his very silkiness disturbing. In Hope's Play, Hope Clark also begins with her back to the audience and gradually works her way around the tiny stage, the dynamics altering in response to her fascinating vocalizing— now sweet and low, now squeaking, a small creature in distress. Like Gries, José Navas offers his butt, but his Aurora is an intriguing and arduous voyage, shaped by something like anger. I'm struck by how ongoing all these solos are. In the New York premiere of her Tala, Molissa Fenley, as is her wont, never stops the muscular, curving press of her arms against space, the fling of one leg, the soft tread of her feet. Martha makes her gracious appearances through a coincidental minefield of ordeals.

Viola Farber's dancing, I once wrote, looked as if it might have been flung onto her from outer space; she absorbed it and transformed it. During her years with Merce Cunningham's company (1953­1965), he mined her unique combination of elegance and instability. However gently her long legs and beautifully arched feet probed the air, her limbs seemed to conspire against one another. When calm, she could look like a wading bird picking its way along a strange shore.

Her works for the company she founded in 1968 were fields of dancing so fevered and difficult that the dancers often looked as if they were having beautiful fits, punctuated by small eruptions of tenderness. She challenged everyone she came in contact with: her company members, dancers who took her classes during the years she taught regularly in New York, those who worked with her in Angers from 1981 to 1983 when she headed the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine, students who knew her at the London Contemporary Dance School between 1984 and 1987, students at Sarah Lawrence where she was teaching at the time of her wholly unexpected death.

If she was occasionally fierce to people about dancing, it's because she was fierce about dancing— wanting it to be uncompromising, as full or high or fast or serene as it could be. But how she lit up with wonder and sweetness when life or people or dancing delighted her! Those grieving for her will remember that.

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