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at the Dance Center of Columbia College

December 10-12

Ralph Lemon goes after sentimentality in his work like a man chasing rats out of a barn. He's ruthless, paring his dances of emotional manipulation; all that's left is a beautiful, scoured, complicated object that evokes feelings for reasons we don't understand.

Two and a half years ago, at the old MoMing Dance & Arts Center, Lemon's company performed a piece, Sleep, that had an excruciating effect on me (and others I've talked to): I had never seen before, and never expect to see again, a work so moving on the subject of death. Looking back I can see that certain elements of the dance--the Faure Requiem score, false endings that prolonged the climax, biblical images, Lemon's very refusal to acknowledge emotion--helped him produce the effect he did.

At the Dance Center of Columbia College Lemon showed three works he's made since--one a world premiere commissioned by the Dance Center--that plainly illustrate the direction he's taken in the last two years. It's not so much that Lemon has changed from narrative to pure dance; neither of the works he showed at MoMing told a genuine story. But he's shifted the emphasis to "pure" movement and refused to use some of the devices of Sleep to deliver an emotional punch. Most notable is Lemon's move away from emotional scores, because his musical sense is superb. It seems a restless intelligence won't let him repeat himself.

Certain themes and ways of working remain, however. The fourth work on this program, the 1991 Solo, seems something of a departure, but like the second dance on the MoMing program, Happy Trails, it attacks a stereotype. The other three dances here resemble Sleep in some ways: they repeat its prayerful images, its sense of a community that matter-of-factly witnesses and cares for its members, and the evident wish to fly, which stands in for a kind of spiritual striving.

The sense of community is very strong in the 1991 Sextet, part of a "Folkdances" suite. Lemon offsets the very tender score, a late Beethoven piano sonata (the Hammerklavier), by giving the choreography the brusque, impersonal energy of folk dance: the dancers often whirl and toss each other about, rolling back to back, for instance, to produce great wheeling circles across the stage. But there's never the sense of enforced gaiety and camaraderie you sometimes find in folk troupes: these dancers drop each other and show no sign of chagrin, or drop themselves to the floor with a complete lack of emotion. Lemon also uses the details of folk dance--a line of dancers clasping hands, deep squats into the floor, a ponylike stepping in place--to establish his unsentimental community. At the same time he shows, in an almost clinical way, the ecstatic effect of social dancing on the individual. Several times one dancer forcefully turns another in a tight circle so that she's visibly dizzy and disoriented--in a different world, on a different plane.

As you'd expect in a man with no tolerance for manipulation, Lemon shows a genuine hatred for stereotypes. Where Happy Trails lampooned macho attitudes by undermining the cowboy mystique, the darkly satirical Solo strips racial stereotypes bare. Commissioned to produce a work on the African American experience (Lemon is black, but he's the only black in his company of seven), he made a solo that opens with him wearing a mask with huge rubbery lips and cramming a banana into his mouth. Later he dances to a tape of a conversation he had with African American tap dancer LaVaughn Robinson, who's trying to explain the difference between buck dancing and hoofing but only succeeds in showing how hard it is for blacks to separate their experience from a history of enslavement: they can't know what is their own and what is "the master's," because it's his world. Given the bitter truths Lemon uncovers, this is a surprisingly compassionate work: we see the anguish when something vital and loved--dancing--is coopted.

Phrases Almost Biblical (1992), which uses no music at all, takes Lemon's obsession with flying to an extreme; and to achieve the effects he wants he's devised a new way of moving. If Martha Graham's discovery was the contraction, if Doris Humphrey's was fall and recovery, Lemon's is the winding up and unwinding of a spring. Relying to a great extent on torque--on a twisting gathering of forces and subsequent whirling extension of the limbs--this technique produces a horizontal movement whose flung lines extend to every corner of the stage. The strength and flexibility of the dancer's back are crucial, because ultimately this movement comes from the big muscles crisscrossing the back; you don't have the sense, as you do in so much dance, that the movement is coming from the groin and involving mostly the legs.

Focusing on the back opens up new emotional as well as technical territory for Lemon. Early in Sextet two dancers stand in profile and essentially dance with their backs, straightening and curving them to the music. In Phrases a crucial motion is a syncopated run forward (as if in preparation for a cartwheel) that turns into a whirling jump in the air and ends in a deep lunge, the dancer's head and upper body thrown back. It looks both arduous and incredibly free. In counterpoint to all this flung movement are phrases of great stillness: one knee and both arms raised while the dancer gazes up; one knee raised, the standing leg in plie, the dancer's hands cupped over the raised knee, chin resting on hands. One senses that Phrases is a remake of Sleep, that Lemon set himself the task of capturing spiritual aspiration and grief without using the crutch of a requiem, or indeed of any music at all (though he does use pealing church bells and the exquisite torture of delaying the work's climax).

Yet as Lemon said during a lecture-demonstration here, silence can be as "pretentious" as classical music. So for his premiere, Their Eyes Rolled Back in Ecstasy, he chose to use noise--three pieces of music playing at once. But he's chosen carefully so that the pieces occupy different registers and have different rhythms: we hear quite distinctly, even when they overlap one another, the ethereal voices of ninth- and tenth-century Gregorian chants, the discordant rock music of Syd Barrett, and the low-toned single-note harmonics of Chris Hyams Hart.

The first time I watched Ecstasy the effect of this bizarre score was so disorienting that I literally could not see the dancing for several minutes. When I went back for a second look I was able to see that Lemon had tried to make things easier on us in the opening minutes by recapitulating some of the seminal images from Sextet and Phrases Almost Biblical. It's still not easy to watch Ecstasy. The otherworldly voices seem to rise out of a dark, profane matrix of sound, a mess of everyday love lyrics badly sung and the slow grinding groan of Hart's experiments in noise.

Yet Lemon does it. He does it. The music of his choreography is so beautiful it propels the viewer through the piece and makes the score beautiful too. The movement is the same kind of winding and unwinding you see in Phrases, but the torque is even greater, and the motion is more continuous and softer--you see one long ribbon of motion. Essentially Lemon has abandoned the phrases of traditional dance, its words and sentences, for a kind of glossolalia, a bodily speaking in tongues that, once you can focus on it, expresses and produces ecstasy. Everything comes from the powerful curving motions of the spine--the dancers are like fish leaping, coiling and uncoiling to unleash all the energy of that crucial and primitive place.

Lemon couldn't have done it without his six breathtaking performers, each of whom has a distinct movement voice. Wally Cardona, the exemplar of Lemon's style, is a miracle of acrobatic grace, and when he's paired with the similarly powerful Michael Nolan, as he often is, the two establish a strong but subtle link. Nancy Ohrenstein, who's been with Lemon for six seasons, has a restrained soulfulness; Ted Marks is a thoughtful, unassuming presence; Lisa Powers, sturdy and pliant, is capable of incredible strength and abandon; and Alissa Hsu etches the details of her exquisite dancing so carefully they almost belie her force and range.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beatriz Schiller.

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