It’s not the booze. These creatures—over a dozen of them—are the imaginative performers participating in one of the “salons” that choreographer Douglas Dunn presents in his Soho loft (not all of them devoted to dance). While we drink and chat, they wander around, trying on items from a table, taking time to preen, maybe, or converse, or snuggle up to someone else. We might also ponder the printed program, which lists certain events but not, it turns out, what happens before, between, and after them.

The short evening’s entertainment boasts a title, Buridan’s Ass, in reference to an ancient paradox mocking moral determinism—one of those issues that philosophers like Buridan used to debate over a pint. A donkey is placed midway between a pile of hay and a tub of water; unable to decide between the two, he’ll just stand there until he dies of both hunger and thirst (empirical evidence involving a knowledge of equine behavior isn’t, apparently, a consideration). Dunn mentioned in his flyer that he is placing his lightest dancing opposite his roughest, but whatever his thinking, he’s not starving or dehydrating us with his art.

Our host welcomes us (so to speak) by strolling around encased in a cardboard carton studded with egg cartons and such and singing a mournful ditty that begins “I want to die, I don’t know why.” Each verse ends with “Oh dear” and a second, softer “Oh dear.” Buridan’s clueless ass might well bray such a lament. Then the rumpus of dancing begins.

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather."
Julieta Cervantes
Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather."
Douglas Dunn, with hat in the background, oversees "Buridanís Ass"
Douglas Dunn, with hat in the background, oversees "Buridanís Ass"

Details

Dana Reitz, Jennifer Tipton, Sara Rudner
Jerome Robbins Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street
212-966-6999
May 13 through 15

Buridanís Ass
Douglas Dunn Studio
541 Broadway
212-966-6999
May 6 through 14

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In 1993, one-time Paul Taylor dancer Renee Wadleigh commissioned a solo from Dunn. On this program Kira Blazek and Paul Singh perform Empty Reel as an ink-blot duet. Set to a Scottish reel, it shows all that Dunn can create in the way of bright footwork and little prances, offset by expansive, wheeling turns and jumps. But, as is usual with him, nothing looks generic; steps are canted in unexpected ways, bent when you expect straightness, varied in rhythms and space patterns, and executed with matter-of-fact diligence.

The next item on the printed program is Widget, a solo Dunn made for Christine Elmo to perform on her graduation concert program at SUNY-Purchase in 2005. She revisits it now for us. The piece is set to music by Brian Eno, but, although it’s quieter than Empty Reel, it has a similar generous physicality and precise oddities (Dunn at his wildest is not one of those choreographers addicted to a soft, free-flowing, bound-and-rebound dynamic). Elmo brings a fine specific focus to the space around her and how her limbs fit into it, whether she’s skittering or propelling herself on all fours.

Before we get to Widget, however, a crew of talented performers saunters into the territory. Their wide-legged, bent-kneed stride vaguely recalls those cowpokes in out-West ballets like Agnes De Mille’s Rodeo.Do I hear growls? After some push-and-pull, half of them lie in a twitching heap, and their opponents hoist them with a hand beneath the neck and walk them, feet-first, wheelbarrow-style, into position for some brief slo-mo duets on the floor.

Fierce forays like this surround and blur into programmed items, such as a duet—originally a solo—excerpted from Don’t Cry Now(to Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song”). Dunn made it in 1990 for students at the University of Montana, and Jules Bakshi (female) and Tony Bordonaro perform it at this salon. And when four women have finished—or maybe not finished—dancing Three Songs, to music by Asteria, four colleagues pick them up and lug them away, frozen in poses.

The program’s featured spots point up Dunn’s ongoing work as a teacher. The strong women of Three Songs—Raquel Cavalcanti, Jee Yun Hong, Maira Duarte Quiroga, and Adelheid B. Strelick—are (or have been) pursuing MA degrees in New York University’s Dance Education program (Dunn is on the faculty). They’re not kids, but already professional dancer-choreographers, and Dunn’s choreography acknowledges their mature sensibilities and accomplishments. In their passages together and their brief solos, he shows us their individual abilities to shade movement and make quirky steps look natural.

Like Merce Cunningham, in whose company he danced for a number of years, Dunn keeps our eyes busy. Unison is a sometime thing; there are often several activities going on at once or impinging on one another. Dancers not featured in the program items—Robbie Cook, Emily Pope-Blackman, Jin Ju Song-Begin, Jake Szczypek, and Dani Vialpando the night I attended—barge in, sail around, and unite with the others and among themselves in various ingenious ways. More than once, they and their confrères stomp around like amiable cavemen.

So the evening is quite like a salon of yore, what with the wine and the informality abetted by the limited seating. The choreographic atmosphere is one of witty conversations erupting now here, now there; of people wandering over to join one group, then being attracted to another; of casual flirtations and spontaneously emerging group games. All this performed with alert, sober, inquisitiveness.

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