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Knots and Bolts

Beth Soll and John Hofstetter MIT Dance Workshop Last Wednesday through Friday

By Susan A. Manning

THESE LITTLE CONCERTS come out of nowhere. Steve Paxton, a member of the New York avant-garde dance circles for the last 15 years, has worked with a Boston friend for much of that, and so it happened that he got together with a local acquaintance, percussionist David Moss, for a recent concert at the King School on Putnam Ave.

The auditorium at the school is designed so that the house merges with the stage, lending an intimacy used to its fullest by Paxton and his audience of local modern dancers. Ending the first section, Paxton announces in a quiet rising tone, his voice gently concluding the dance phrase (or perhaps shyly inviting friends home), "I think there's some cider." He turns, a reserved host, slips on his sandals and walks off upstage. Those watching aren't sure if it's intermission or if the concert's over, but soon someone passes the right word, and everyone stands to stretch and stroll over to inspect the array of unusual percussion instruments.

Paxton's reticence as a performer arises naturally from his movement style, perfectly scaled for this sort of space. The wise old man of dance criticism, Edwin Denby, once noted that some dance gesture relates to the entire stage area while other gesture relates to the dancer's own body. Highly metred movement, like Laura Dean's, tends toward the first sort, Paxton's toward the second. His is not personal gesture in the sense of creating a specific presence of character, as does local dancer Deborah Chassler using similar improvisation techniques. We never find out who Paxton is, beyond the performer of this particular dance, embracing the original meaning of "modern dance"--an individual's self-expression. Irrelevant to his dance is the whole notion of choreography--that qualities exist in a dance that can be recreated by other dancers in other places. Paxton's expression doesn't follow the logic of choreography. The pleasure simply comes in watching the idiosyncrasies of one dancer dancing.

The first impression is of a broad and strong-backed man executing very soft movements. Paxton begins walking the diagonal of the space with a forearm gesture that suggests a mime pulling open a door or a classical Indian dancer coiling her palm in a hand posture. The opening movements have an Eastern sort of stillness. There are five or so discrete sequences in each half, with a small break in between each, while Paxton wipes his brow or walks to a new starting position. Several phrases build to a similar climax: turns slipping into themselves and then into the floor, fast-falling tumbling jumps with the barest feel of contorted frenzy. The climaxes seem to come from one root gesture, a balance on one foot with the other leg held stiffly to the side just off the floor. Paxton transforms this pose at another moment into a slippery soft-shoe, and later into an awkward stumble, buoying to stay upright. The image is of a swimmer with his head always just slightly above water.

The music comes last in this review and it shouldn't, for this concert is a collaboration of two soloists. David Moss's collection of instruments is highly visual as well as audible, some hung from a metal frame: drums, gongs, warped cymbals, pot covers, a Chinese zither. Further downstage stand three sonic sculptures: clusters of metal rods placed on hollow blocks which sound otherworldly when stroked or bowed. And Moss makes vocal sounds too: I thought he was just clearing his throat and settling into his funhouse of instruments before I realized the concert had begun. Paxton joins Moss for one instrumental section; later Moss takes another while Paxton disappears to change from a red T-shirt into a yellow one. The concert ends as Paxton, drawing a deep breath, exchanges a look with Moss that says, "Okay, now just one more." He then springs into a strenuous, exhilarating knot of dancing that inspires the small audience to respond with lengthy applause.

IT'S FUN to see a new work by the same choreographer every few months, and to note what impressions remain the same, leaving imprints of the artist's style. This weekend at MIT local choreographer Beth Soll presented "Map," and as in "Clearfield," her piece performed earlier this spring, she was cavorting off to the side of the action like some imperious imp. But a performing persona is only one aspect of style; more interesting to see is how Soll's choreography transcends this way of moving.

Soll's method in terms of movement technique is most clearly shown in "Lines of Perception," a dance by John Hofstetter which made up the first half of the program. Soll's frequent collaborator, Hofstetter, distilled the movement style they both favor and offered it bone-dry: a sequence of movements executed four times with four different spatial orientations. One figure (Hofstetter) walks at a visually imperceptible pace to trace the boundary of the performing space.

"It's so controlled, and I thought modern dance was supposed to loosen things up," remarked a friend. The movement is as restrained as ballet. Soll and Hofstetter use the values of classical dance--continuous sequences punctuated by clear shifts in weight and sharp changes in direction--to fuse a new movement style.

Hofstetter smeared his tidy creation ever so slightly with two motifs also used by Soll: vaguely evocative hand gestures passing over eyes or mouth, and people carrying one another's weight. Soll welds the two into the most vivid image of last year's "Safari" and this season's "Map": a human chain, people burdened with one another as with heavy loads or corpses, journeying slowly through space. The structure of "Map" has this same open and nothing quality, small-scale events against a large group moving as a whole, detail against a drifting mass. I like the way it straggles.

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