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Lubovitch at the Loeb, Soll, and New England Dinosaur

DANCE

By Susan A. Manning

NOT UNTIL curtain call on the second night, when choreographer Lar Lubovitch jumped forward to acknowledge the applause of his own company, did I realize who he was: that one dancer who'd kept so much to himself in the background. Lubovitch isn't a star. Unlike Martha Graham, for instance, his presence as a performer doesn't constitute the driving force of his work. Yet his presence as maker of the dance is much in evidence onstage. Not that he puts choreographic structure itself on show; his forms are too well-crafted to be immediately visible. Rather, his is the sort of choreography that lets performers perform. Lubovitch maintains his distance so that the company can dance.

And they dance beautifully. The company members study ballet as well as modern; their fluid ease in moving can only be termed classical. Lubovitch too can be thought of as a classical choreographer in that he subordinates personal statement to an expression of the beauty and power of the corps. He doesn't advocate any one point of view as to the use of music, choreographic form, or movement style. Instead, he takes what he needs where he finds it: in the traditions of ballet, in the techniques of Graham or Humphrey, in the post-modern aesthetics developed by his contemporaries.

This type of company probably couldn't have existed twenty years ago. The dance world then was too polarized between the spheres of ballet and modern, and modern choreographers themselves were divided; dances were ideological statements. Today Lubovitch takes for granted the freedom to work in any style; his dancers are able to attack any movement with the lightness of ballet or the strength of Graham or the breathiness of Humphrey. Lubovitch can allow each dance to create its own technique and aesthetic.

The aesthetic embodied in "Marimba," a 1976 work set to Steve Reich's "Music for Mallet, Instruments, Voices and Organ," is that of repetitive imagery. The intensity of repetition leads to clearer seeing, deeper insight; it's a curiously challenging boredom. The unfamiliar is so predictable as to become unexpected. Composer Steve Reich articulates this aesthetic in an essay defining music as a "gradual process." He writes, "I want to be able to hear the process happening throughout the sounding music," a perfect description of "Marimba," a dance about form revealing itself.

Dancers in flesh-colored leotards, an empty stage--there is little to focus on but the symmetrical ebb and flow of movement phrases, a rhythm which underscores at every moment the steady pulse of the music. Even gestures with a mimetic quality--the measured sobs midway through and the ending gesture, tightly-clenched lists covering weeping? eyes--are built to square with the monotonous pulse.

Lubovitch works with a similar sort of gesture in Stravinsky's "Les Noces"--highly specific, mimetic gesture, yet abstract, interesting as pure form. Ignoring the abbreviated libretto Stravinsky wrote with Bronislava Nijinska for the 1923 Diaghilev premiere, the choreographer presents instead his own vision of a Russian peasant rite, an innocent bride and shy groom, their anxious yet wise parents, and high-spirited friends. In a recent interview Lubovitch explained:

I work first from a purely structural standpoint, where I'm really just working on shape.....Then, from that shape, I begin to build motive. After that, I work it to the music to find out how it correlates.....Then the combination of the shape, emotional suggestion and musical correlation is the finished phrase.

The choreography of "Les Noces" has just this sense of deep interconnectings.

"Whirligogs," an early work, exhibits the same concerns. Lubovitch, exploring the ways shape and emotional suggestion interrelate, relies on representational gesture just verging on the abstract. Accompanied by Berio's voice collage "Sinfonia," black-hooded dancers appear, then a man and woman in bared dress. The hooded dancers return unmasked, later reappearing disguised, only to toss their masks defiantly to the side, and then again appear as dark spirits surrounding and overwhelming the lovers. Lubovitch uses his costume flexibly, allowing the masks to suggest rather than to define possibilities. He realizes the unanticipated. As a voice in flat monotone recites to end Berio's score: "We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us, in our rooms, on the streets, at the door, on a stage."

*****

A DANCER-FRIEND of mine overheard choreographer Beth Soll remark, as she tacked up posters announcing her January concert "Clear-field," that it was about time she considered doing a more accessible piece. Funny that another Boston dance company recently has made just that decision. New England Dinosaur, which last spring gave a concert of five wonderfully inaccessible dances last month presented "The Tree of Life," the sort of piece suited for lecture demonstrations in high school gyms on "modern dance."

Funny too that both works--"Clearfield," with its avant'garde conventions of blankly-staring dancers' faces and seeming arbitrary actions, and "The Tree of Life," with its tidy presentation of thematic unity--should have the same effect: the lovely ambiguity of not knowing exactly what the piece was about, and wanting to see it again. In other words, intelligent dancing.

Soll subtitled "Clearfield" a "silent dance opera;" avant-garde choreographer Meredith Monk, who appeared at the Loeb last year, uses the same term to describe her art. In Monk's works there seems to exist a deeply-felt controlling image beyond the shifting motifs of the dance surface. I didn't sense any single undertow of meaning in "Clearfield," though perhaps Soll intended one. Rather, it seemed as if the dance began and ended in stillness, its images like whispers heard above a soft drone.

AN EVEN TEMPO of changes in movement quality and the unvarying level of intensity in execution anchor the multiplicity of surface motifs in "Clearfield." The only larger sense of form seems to be increasing differentiation. In the first half Soll remains separate from her four companions, who change off in duets, trios, and quartets. In the second part she begins to interact with the others; the quartet breaks up and the choreography becomes more diffuse as each performer defines a sphere of his own. In this latter section there are deliberate breaks in the monotone of the first half. The dancers step unexpectedly out of one persona and into another. The motifs from the first section continue--rounds of stamping and shuffling in place of musical rhythm, and repetitive actions with time-measures of their own. Yet in the second half these movements take on more incisive implications, an edge of irony. Here gesture approaches metaphor while retaining its interest as abstract action.

In contrast, "The Tree of Life" uses nothing but metaphoric gesture: expressive intent informs each movement. The work is simply structured One group of dancers works as a unit into which three characters--"the shaman," "the first horse," and "the mother"--emerge and recede. The section motifs, derived from imporivsation directed by guest choreographer Aileen Passloff, are simple as well: huddling in a mass, journeying in a chain of linked arms, imitating birds and horses and animal-demons. Yet the logic of how one section plays off against the next is puzzling. What sort of beings are these--ancient creatures, spirits, dream images? It's easy to scoff at program notes that read, "In a sense it's a journey into ourselves"--until you lie awake recalling the shaman's grimacing trance-like stare.

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