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Winifred Haun & Dancers

at Link's Hall, May 19-21

It's easy to underestimate the effect a space can have on the making of a dance, whether you're talking about the shape and size of the rehearsal studio or the configuration and accoutrements of the theater. Some choreographers are better than others at taking such things into account, and it appears Winifred Haun is among them. So far her choreography--which has often been presented in such traditional theaters as the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts and the Athenaeum--has seemed suited to a proscenium stage: she focuses on line, which comes across best framed and from a distance. But she's also capable of fitting her work to a warm and cozy shoe box: the new Leadfoot Suite is clearly tailor-made for Link's Hall, which has no wings but boasts plenty of odd features (including closets often used as wings) and is so tiny the audience is almost eyeball to eyeball with the performers.

Unfortunately Haun's Minutes, which she premiered last fall at the Athenaeum, suffers in such close quarters. The piece is dominated by a huge black table: Haun's subject is business meetings, and by extension the power struggles and confrontations of corporate life. Seen from a distance the table must dwarf the seven dancers, making them seem ineffectual, toylike; but from a couple dozen feet away the table seems more playground equipment than oversize furniture. And an audience member can easily be distracted by its creaking, worried it's not sturdy enough to support the dancers.

Still, Haun's works can cross over--though they convey different effects in different places. Her other new piece is a companion work to It's Both (1993): Neither is also a solo she performs with bass clarinetist Gene Coleman playing onstage. I've seen It's Both only in proscenium theaters, where it comes off well--odd but clean and humorous--and I bet it would work in a small place the same sweaty, intimate way Neither did at Link's. Conversely, transferring Neither to a larger, more traditional venue might make it communicate a sense of humor the way It's Both does: seen from a distance, Haun's deadpan Saint Vitus's dance and giant pas de cheval might seem less odd and tortured, more comical. Yet Other Sides (a 1992 duet for a man and woman who squabble themselves into exhaustion, then return to watching television) seemed funnier at Link's than it has in larger spaces, perhaps because we could see the dancers' faces.

You couldn't take Leadfoot Suite out of Link's without doing serious damage. It begins with six dancers carefully arranged against the walls that form the immutable boundaries of the space, and Haun uses them (as other choreographers have) to achieve unusual effects: to isolate legs splayed against the rear wall in chorus-line rhythms, for example, or to reveal someone literally up against the wall, facing it with arms spread like a prisoner about to be shot. At one point the dancers stand on a radiator, and one gets pushed into a closet.

Leadfoot Suite is a strange mix, both dark and joyous. Sometimes the dancers interact in ways that seem hostile or angry, and the music can sound like pandemonium, as if a thunderstorm had swept into Link's and were shaking all of us. Then there's that image of the person about to be shot, the image that closes the piece. Yet Leadfoot Suite is often lighthearted, even goofy: at one point shortly after the man turns his back on the invisible firing squad, three women kneel with hands clasped behind them in a classic pose of grief and oppression only to raise their hands and torsos in mock praise when the girl group on the sound track goes "ooooh!"

In fact the piece is filled with musical and kinetic delights. The rock classic "Right Place Wrong Time," used in the closing section, proves remarkably compelling dance music with its pumping beat and Dr. John's gravelly, funky singing. And for this section Haun has devised lots of variations on an unusual motion, the twirled foot or hand: dancers rotate these appendages while lying on their sides or backs, standing in arabesque or against the wall, or leaning to one side. Just watching them makes your own calves and ankles and forearms feel good, and the motion has a curious visual and emotional impact as well, both delicately decorative and beseeching. The dancers often tip their heads and cradle one cheek in their palms in a contemplative pose at odds with their steely legs and hips, reaching into a side extension or arabesque. They jump balletically, then flop over. It almost seems as if the intimacy of Link's has freed Haun to follow her musical impulses more closely and to allow the dancers' personalities to shape the piece (especially veteran Haun dancer Heather Girvan and newcomer Allen Desterhaft, who does a nice solo).

Musical pleasures also guarantee the success of Ginger Farley's premiere, Lonely Road, set to Zap Mama, the Beastie Boys, and Joni Mitchell. At first the four women and one man seem disaffected salt-of-the-earth types, standing isolated from one another with hips jutting, arms crossed over chests. Then one woman comes center stage, and we can see the musicality in the way she shifts her hips or swipes the ground with her foot in a single arc. Some quirky motifs look like work: scrubbing the floor with an elbow, for example. And sometimes the dancers seem hostile--one even hits another, but not passionately--or pair off to leave one woman (Karen Camelet) on her own. But the piece ends on an upbeat note with liquid motions in unison, with hips or heads thrown in wide, freewheeling circles. Farley (who danced with Hubbard Street for many years) has a nice way of combining staccato, jazzy movements with motions so loose they're almost floppy: the tension between these two modes combined with a sophisticated approach to rhythm make Lonely Road a treat.

Company member Amy Crandall also messes around with the music in her Buffalo Grove, a clean, simple piece set to Bach that sometimes recalls Paul Taylor's Esplanade. Yet Crandall's piece is occasionally restrained in a way that Esplanade never is: she almost seems to be working against the flowing string music by making static pictures. Crandall avoids the pitfalls of many young choreographers--creating pieces that are too busy and unstructured or that tackle "big" issues--but one wonders whether she intended to work so strongly against the music, and if so why.

Haun has been making dances since 1988, and some 20 of them are now in her company's repertory. She's no longer a newcomer, and she's talented--her work is never merely pretty and seldom resembles anyone else's. She's a better choreographer than touted New Yorker James Kudelka, judging by the piece Hubbard Street commissioned from him, Heroes, but his dance was presented on the stage of the Shubert. Her solo Neither--the only work on this program she performed--reminded me of what an uncompromising artist she is. She doesn't dance to anyone's drummer but her own. She rarely makes works on social issues or collaborates with any "community." Which may be why she's performing at small, out-of-the-way venues. Link's is great--a unique, homey place--but it wouldn't be right for Haun to be confined to it.

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

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