Bennington, perhaps more than any other college, has the right to present a dance concert for the public. Up in the Vermont hills a lot of intensive training goes on among the students who elect Dance as their major. Daily classes in ballet and modern dance, prolonged study of choreography and performing and among the students, fiercely professional devotion, become routine. The happy result is a group of young dancers who know what they're up to. Every other year during the winter term the best of the Bennington dancers set out on a dance tour of the east coast to show their stuff.
The audience at the Loeb last Friday and Saturday got its money's worth. The group is interesting to watch with something sympathetic and appealing about them; they are young, they move well, they perform with confidence and spirit. A few of them, Lisa Nelson and Whittaker Sheppard in particular, give off sparks of a very personalized energy. A few of them, especially wide-eyed Wendy Perron, possess radiant good looks that are nothing if not pleasant to behold. A few of them, like Martha Armstrong, are very funny. Attributes like these can make even a spoiled Loeb audience forget they're faced with a proscenium stage bare of sets, made ugly by a dirty canvas floor cloth and backed by shabby backdrops of black or white.
The lighting, designed by Bennington and executed by a Loeb team, didn't do much to help. For the most part, the dancers were clumsily spotted by pools of light cast from above. Thus foreshortened from overhead, the desired illusion that the dancer's motions cut through space was difficult to sustain. Instead, performers often looked as though they were progressing from one focus to another. Only two choreographers. Catherine Stern in Personna and Wendy Summit in Void tried different lighting. In Personna a shaft of light was thrown from stage left like a flashlight beam. In contrast Void was nullified by the trick appearance of the house lights, which remained on throughout most of the dance.
Seldom resorting to tired leotards and tights, the choreographers (who chose both costumes and sound for their dances) were impressively canny in their selection of costume. Wendy Perron relieved the formality of design of A Place Apart with magnificently striped and decolletee dresses. All are Sleeping on the Hill, a period piece set to music by Benjamin Britten, used sheets as material for white burial dresses, each elaborately and individually styled.
However, such technical expertise of the Bennington troupe could not altogether compensate for some of the flaws of the young choreographer. Only the dances designed to be comic invariably worked. Esprit de Corps, subtitled "Eight bodies make one body; never will those bodies do anything but make that one body," was a dry and witty piece done to the music of Ornette Coleman. Eight dancers jittered towards and away from each other, popped up and down, parodied square dance movements, or fulsomely collapsed on one another with deadpan faces, all to the delight of the audience. The success of the dance lav in its careful attention to tempo changes. Doubling, deliberately opposing or ignoring the beat of the music in the most impish way, the dancers looked as if they were motivated by some inner whimsy propelling the eight of them into a very happy, very simple secret existence.
In contrast to the humor, the lower depths elicited the most common failings of undergraduate art. Most of the dances which dealt with the anguish of love, or depression, loneliness, and death produced big empty cliches of movement: contractions in the solar plexus, rolls to the floor, and tortured embracing of empty space (including the dancers' own heads). Using quivering feet and fingers spread in agony to express their morbid profundities the choreographers seldom planned expression for the whole body. Still preverbal, they were seldom able to express themselves in the real morphemes of the dance--movement and energy involving the whole body.
Only in A Place Apart by Wendy Perron was a choreographer successful in sculpting beautiful, interrelated movements: this at moments was a kind of graphic art. At moments too. Whittaker Sheppard's sketch of death, Incident at Dusk, communicated a horror and panic that was intended. Despite her confusion of narcissism with self-discovery, Lisa Nelson alone moved away from the dramatic toward the kine-esthetic, and she worked her cumulative effect, instead of striving for profoundity with each gesture.
I've saved comment about the skill of the dancer for last, for here they were truly distinguished, college dance's equivalent of U.S.C. To a man, they were strong, athletic, beautifully graceful, and remarkably polished. For this alone, go see them when you can.