I ONCE SAW a modern dance performance, inspired during the few years when "happenings" were in vogue. It consisted of, a) bodies winding themselves in sheets of brown wrapping paper, b) bodies taking off their clothes, c) bodies kicking bowls in the pool at the base of a fountain for an hour and a half. Was the audience supposed to get something out of the spectable just because it was passing in front of their eyeballs? The only concession the choreographer had made was to choose the performers on the basis of beauty rather than dance ability--Presumably so that the audience would be sufficiently attracted and notice that they breathed. The audience quickly divided into those who were sustained by their amazement that this was "happening"; those who fell asleep; and those who took their eyeballs and left.
A few weekends ago, the Summer School Dance Center presented five works choreographed by teachers-in residence Bill Evans, Martha Armstrong Gray and Dorothy Hershkowitz. There was no difficulty in realizing that the dancers, which included the choreographers, were alive: the pieces were beautifully and energetically performed. But meaning was too often sacrificed to technique, so that there was no clear reason as to why the dancers were alive.
BACH WORK made use of highly contained, abstracted movement; the experience of the dancers was based, not so much on ideas, as on immediate, rhythmic relationships, both among themselves and with the music. The dancers did not work with the swell of the music as mood or emotion, but reached constantly to the beat, as if to get as close to the instant as possible by testing every rhythmic tick, or catching it for a ride. The electronically calibrated music, used in three of the works, bore whiffs of the Maxwell house percolator. And the dancers, though graceful, looked as emotionless as the animated discs in the film announcements for Walter Reade theatres.
The emotional restraint of the program was most frustratingly evident in "El Lobo", choreographed by Dorothy Hershkowitz, a piece which attempted to express confining relationships between men and women. The dance kept slipping into formalized movement, sometimes a good parody of sleazy courtship rituals, but more often irrelevant to what was being expressed. "Cambridge Dances", choreographed by Bill Evans, and "Journeys", by Martha Armstrong Gray, were more fluid than the other works, but too abstract. At times, in both of these dances, Gray would suddenly shiver and limp, but even this never gave more than ripples to an overly calm surface.
THE MOST successful dance was "Within Bounds", choreographed by Bill Evans, add performed by Evans and Reuben James Edinger. Movement was purposely trapped to indicate the state of mind of the two men, one of whom was overcome by insanity, the other by technological regimentation. The music moved like the calculations of a computer, goading the men, who had previously only glanced nervously at each other, into a silent and desperate combat to save themselves. As they finally began to make peace with each other, the music picked up again, overcoming them. It was the only instance where the dancers touched the possibility of being emotionally overwhelmed.
Modern dance has always had a small audience. Never firmly established, it has remained dependent on financial funding from foundation grants and universities. Perhaps it is the academicism in the atmosphere, that has infected these professional dancers with an over-concern with form, at the expense of felt experience. Choreographers like Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle have rooted their works in their experience, importing the riches of jazz and blues. Their works are alive, far more powerful than those of Merce Cunningham, who rips his dances out of all reality without leaving any reference posts. If it was depressing to see the beautiful bowl-kickers "happening," it was hardly less so to see the very gifted dancers who performed at Agassiz last weekend have so little to say.
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