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CHOREOGRAPHERS SAMPLER

at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

November 29 and 30 and December 1, 2, and 7-9

It's easy to take the small low-tech things for granted: breath, warmth, weight, volition. MoMing has never taken these things for granted (though we may have taken MoMing for granted). Human scale, for good or bad, whether we liked it or not, is what we got at MoMing.

But not anymore. Or not for long. The Choreographers Sampler, inaugurated last year, ends this year, with final performances this weekend (there will be a party after the last performance, on December 9). And so ends MoMing, a place that has always valued the whimper as much as the bang. Maybe more. This Choreographers Sampler is a noisy one, with performers slamming against walls, slapping their bodies against the floor, hooting and grunting and chortling and singing--the music more often than not is people's voices. The five fine, brave pieces (one with a prelude) have been made by a total of ten people, many of them working in collaboration.

The first piece, the Sock Monkeys' Gas Works Wall, is performed in MoMing's downstairs gallery. It's pretty claustrophobic--a small, tight, brightly lit box with a low ceiling and one small, ad hoc-looking entrance--and the Sock Monkeys' choreography magnifies that effect. Much of the dance takes place up against the gallery's blank walls, and though the space isn't completely oppressive, you have a sense of freedom only within limits.

Three of the four Sock Monkeys--Kay Wendt LaSota, Bryan Saner, and Jeanette Welp--enter through the door and shut it behind them. They back up to a wall, thrust their hips forward, and arch back so that, with the tops of their heads touching the wall, they're looking up. An ordinary slow walk across the space, eyes and heads down, develops into a fancier walk, the toes and ball of the foot pushed caressingly forward along the floor, the foot brought caressingly behind, and the big toe brought up to touch behind the knee. We're so close to the performers, and they're so brightly lit, that our attention is focused on their smallest movements, even on how they must feel as they're doing them; the effect is highly tactile. They reverse directions and do the same phrase facing us--and suddenly we're no longer voyeurs but people who can be seen ourselves in the bright light. Because Gas Works Wall so often plays off the three walls surrounding it, it's odd and vaguely threatening for the audience to feel that it is itself the fourth "wall."

So far, no music. Now Lydia Charaf enters singing, first just long crooned notes, then "Mood Indigo." The song's minor key, Charaf's low-voiced, slow rendering, and the grave adagio dancing give the piece an elegiac note that lingers even when the pace picks up. It's a mood so well sustained that when LaSota, Saner, and Welp bang their butts against the back wall with a sound like thunder, so hard that the wall quivers, we jump. A tape of the Pogues singing "Dirty Old Town" changes the mood a bit, but the most striking movement throughout uses the walls as props, as solid spatial adjuncts. Hearing Saner groan, we look over to one side and see he's got himself upside down against the wall in a kind of suspended seal dive into the floor; later, three dancers in handstands supported by the wall slowly cartwheel their arms and then slowly collapse, letting their feet drag down the wall with a drawn-out squeak.

The audience moves to the main performance space upstairs for the rest of the concert. Lisa Brawley and Elena Vassallo's duet, Blind Spot in an Old Dream of Symmetry, is a small, careful, obscurely moving formal exercise that explores choreographic similarity and difference--and also, in effect if not intent, friends' separateness and togetherness. By creating and scrupulously maintaining its own premises, this dance creates its own small universe, with its own expectations and surprises.

The premise here is that the two women will dance in unison but with small deviations. They start facing us, both rhythmically swiveling their hips and striking their heels against the floor, first the left, then the right, over and over. One stops, seems to begin to walk away, turns back, and returns to the rhythmic stamping--but this time she and the other are mirror images. Their accompanist, Pennington McGee, comes in with the first sounds of his minimalist score, sounds that first resemble soft static and then the shhhhh of cascading seeds; and the dancers proceed through many variations on movement in unison: identical movement but facing or moving in different directions; identical movement at different times (in canon), or at different tempi, or both.

Blind Spot in an Old Dream of Symmetry is so rigorous that the few occasions when the two dancers appear not to be in unison are shocking. Brawley and Vassallo are dressed identically, in black V-backed shifts and black tights, and both wear their hair up; the initial effect is of identical twins. And just as we might surreptitiously compare twins, here we look for the small differences--both in the choreography and in their appearances--that set these two apart. The irony is that the unison movement and minute variations on it focus our attention on differences between the two dancers and even magnify them.

The humorous We Like It Here, created and performed by Fluid Measure members Donna Mandel and Patricia Pelletier, begins with war at a highly individual level--sibling rivalry--and takes it to national and possibly international levels. Mandel and Pelletier are "sisters" who continually argue about who is the real daughter and who is the stepdaughter, who the good daughter and who the bad. Competition, greed, and familiarity nestle together, producing some intimate battles: the two women, apparently trying to move together, lapse into split-second, grimacing lags; they manipulate each other's heads or choke each other. But movement is only part of the story here; the rest is the clever text, often reminiscent of children at play, making themselves up as they go along ("I'm the mom, you're the witch"), and a set by sculptor Dan Galemb consisting of about a dozen carved heads. The dancers upend these by the ears, sit on the chins, and later fling them about while making mouth noises like exploding bombs. By the time they finish singing "I like the United States," the floor is littered with heads.

Mary Johnston-Coursey's In Full Sun begins with a prelude, most of it a solo for herself, and ends with a trio, for herself, Ann Boyd, and Catherine Wettlaufer Buehler. The program note includes an excerpt from a poem by Pablo Neruda, "Plenos poderes," from which the title of the dance is taken; Neruda reflects on being and nonbeing, death and life, sleep and waking, light and shade, but obscures the distinctions between these states. Light plays an important role in this dance. Ken Bowen's design begins with a dim bluish glow at the corner of the stage like a wintry dawn; the light appears to have a life of its own, disappearing, flashing back (the dancer remains still), and disappearing again. Later Bowen slices the stage in half, lighting only the front and hanging darkness behind it like a curtain.

Johnston-Coursey's percussive choreography and score (by Rhythm Devils) also play with being and nonbeing: sound and no sound, movement and no movement. In the prelude we hear only the performer at first--like a barefoot tap dancer, Johnston-Coursey beats her soles rhythmically against the floor--but we see nothing because the stage is dark. Later, when the lights have come up (dimly), she slaps her whole body against the floor in a series of running rolls; the dance is the rhythm of different body parts, with their different proportions of bone and muscle and different expanses of skin, striking the floor--a buttock producing a sustained bass note, and a hand a staccato soprano slap. The costumes--one-piece rompers with deep cuts in the back--bare the dancers' arms, legs, and spines.

In Full Sun is a naked-seeming dance that makes punishing physical demands on its performers. The choreography is mostly a series of twisting falls, the weight carried fully into the floor and then fully picked up so the procedure can be repeated; the look is circular, just as the poem gives an impression of circularity. (It's possible to feel that the act of rising is "being," the fall "nonbeing," but as in the poem, the two melt together.) Variations on this general pattern are certain tangled looks--the three dancers are stacked, for instance, one in a handstand, another holding her legs, and a third crouched on the second woman's back--and moments of openness, as when the three women, widely separated onstage, become still, the only sound one dancer's vibratory thudding of her heel against the floor.

If Johnston-Coursey hunts the spiritual life, Lauri Macklin traces the life of the id. Trouble Sleeping, which opens with the performers keening like mosquitoes, is an aural banquet as well as a dance, with one sleeper (Stacy Rauba,) and several dream devils (Bill Dietz, Ilene Evans, Joe Hanc, Macklin, Dan Prindle, Melinda Roberts, and Terrence Washington) who plague the dreamer's sleep by leaping, stamping, shrieking, and saying nonsensical things in hideous voices. They're like Cubs fans in drunken paroxysms. "Why didn't you look when I told you?" turns into a wordless song in an ungodly vibrato; another devil talks like the possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Two dancers haul on a third, one at each end, as if they'd like to tear her in two. Meanwhile the troubled sleeper, who starts at one side of the stage and gradually inches across it with her pillow and impossibly long blanket, is awakened only once, stumbling toward us in a sleep daze, her downcast eyes looking small and defenseless. By the end of the piece that long, long blanket stretches across the stage like a metaphor for the long, long night spent listening to the yammering of idiots who repeat themselves and contradict themselves and can't even hold onto their own identities.

Weird? Of course. Dance often falls between the cracks of our everyday categories--it has especially at MoMing. We look, and scratch our heads, and look again. And where will we go now to see people dancing on walls? Where will we go to hear them grunt and shriek, wheeze and whinny? MoMing was the grand purveyor of the human. And MoMing is dead. Long live MoMing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carolyn Schneider.

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