More Than a Theory

The Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Co. at the Loeb last weekend

IT IS ALMOST a truism: in the rest of the world, including other universities, the arts are practiced. At Harvard, they are analyzed. Traditionally, the imbalance for undergraduates has been righted in extracurricular activities: Harvard has fostered two orchestras, three choral groups, innumerable dramatic organizations and, most recently, a dance company. But as the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company's annual performance (last Thursday through Saturday, at the Loeb) distressingly suggested, it is possible for the pursuit of theory to confuse the integrity of practice, even outside the classroom.

Of the eight pieces on the Dance Company program--all choreographed by Harvard students or affiliates--three seemed to be less dance pieces than theatrical pieces about dancing. Elizabeth Lurie's "A Touch of Folly," for example, used the stage as a frame for the whimsical meanderings of a quantity of balloons dropped from above, tossed from the wings, or (almost incidentally) blown up and carried by dancers. At least the equivalence was consistent: dancers sprawled on the floor next to balloons with the air let out, balloons ascended and dancers rose on tiptoe, balloons bobbed and floated while dancers circled and swayed. . . But after a while, the balloons stole the show, careening with the air going out like antic rockets, bumbling like a small child's blown soap bubbles, or clustered in dancers' hands like enormous molecular models. I don't recall what in particular the dancers looked like--their motions were minimal and forgettable. If the piece were intended to explore the commonality of motion between unlike objects, it ended by suggesting that balloons are more interesting dancers than people.

Far subtler was Gail Casson's disquieting solo, "Marooned." A crumpled piece of cloth served in turn as the dancer's nursed and dandled baby, as an alien object enkindling fear, as the skirt in which she danced with measured delicacy or frenzied abandon, and finally as a pair of wings launching her into solipsistic flight. Through an accumulation of flawlessly-timed, needle-sharp details, Casson awakened issues of astonishing complexity: identity and mask, fantasy and madness, reality and imagination, or--as when she held the bunched skirt to her breast, moving her own mouth in the fishlike gulps of a nursing baby--the poignant tension between who we are and what we create. Yet dance, as distinct from brilliant mime, remained subsidiary and instrumental in this work: it was only one of the trajectories out of loneliness, one of the disguises for the unbearably vulnerable self.

At least Casson managed to fuse dramatic nuance and expressive gesture into an integrated whole. Holly Whipple's glib "In Sequins and Out," on the other hand, merely manipulated surfaces, whether of theatrical convention or of psychological cliche. The plot was straight out of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," predictable from start to finish, though it detoured along the way to poke fun with elephantine subtlety at ballet, tap, show-dancing, stage mothers and theater people in general. Small girl, repulsively well-scrubbed, trips off to dance class. Glitteringly costumed dancers enter to whir through various routines like wind-up toys. Small girl joins them, they acclaim her: fantasy fulfilled. Suddenly, hints of menace. Small girl is abandoned. Bunny dancer/mother rocks her to sleep. Moral: something about not getting carried away by choreography, it may be quite good: you couldn't tell from the derivative Broadway hodge-podge exhibited here.

It may be tempting for young choreographers to hide behind the trappings of the art, because dance itself is so difficult to construct well. As "pure dance," only one of last weekend's offerings was wholly successful. Howard Fine's "Dream Journal," the opening work on the program, unfolded a beautifully organic pattern on the motif of the softly curving arc. Dancers tumbled their arms like water-wheels in the fall of the current, or turned on one leg, the others bent at right angles the way a feather spirals in a funnel of air. All the edges here had been washed smooth, and the rhythmic impulse, as in a dream, was the time of the sea-drift, rippling the dancers' bodies like wind on water. Meg Streeter's "Waves Blown Back" was less articulate, though still structured with thematic clarity. Streeter's dancers flashed across the stage in nimble zigzags, exploring the buoyant thrust of clean angles from a compact center.

A frustrating incoherence marred both Ann diFruscia's "Prisma" and Elizabeth S.-Wilkerson's "When the Street Lights Come On," accenting the uneven choreography of the company. In "Prisma," large wooden angles and U-shapes hung at the back of the stage, suggesting the organizing principle of the choreography. At its best, the dance was forthright and geometric, firmly asserted on the ground and in space as a series of poses blocked and held. Too much of its tedious time-span, however, was cluttered with extraneous movement: what should have been an architecture of simplicity was badly in need of discipline and toning. The problem with "When the Street Lights Come On" was slightly different. S.-Wilkerson's work of jazzy music and glowing lights found character in moments of deft energy and crisp form--but large parts of the dance looked arbitrary, playing with a series of beginnings that never grew.

PERHAPS ONE of the lessons of the performance, then--both negatively and positively reinforced--was that the making of dances is a wretchedly tricky business. This was surely one of the themes of the evening's most outlandish and sophisticated piece, Connie Chin's "Chimera." Chin's own entrance, in a state of hilarious discombobulation, jarred our sense of anatomical propriety from the start. Clad in screaming pink, her face masked white, Chin crawled on stage wearing a sneaker on one foot and one hand; the other leg, draped in purple, dragging behind her like a tail. Once upright, she moved hand-over-hand down her outstretched leg to reach and untie the sneaker, as though her entire body would fly apart at any moment if she were less than excruciatingly careful. The contrast between an animal's lithe movements and the spasmodic fragility of the upright dancer was maintained throughout the work, as Chin--returned to her animal position--trundled by repeatedly to confound the stubborn choreographic efforts of four brittle dancers in white. Whether the ungainly quartet was carefully composing itself to approximate Victorian garden sculptures, or Chin was swinging her leg in unison with the untied sneaker, the point was made with imagination and vast humor: that the process of making our bodies dance, when neither filtered into theory nor reduced to anemic self-commentary, can be a matter of self-discovery rich with absurdity and delight. It is a lesson the Harvard-Radcliffe Dance Company should mark well.