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A World in Movement

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AMY ALT AND SHELDON B. SMITH

at Link's Hall, January 21-23

In a famous passage from Marcel Proust's novel Swann's Way the taste of a madeleine calls up for the narrator a whole era of his life: that small, concrete, and ordinary object--a cookie--contains an entire world, and the mind releases it. Proust, an invalid, was fascinated by the workings of memory, but more generally by how the imagination can transform one sensual experience into another. Just that kind of untraceable, rich transformation, a taste or scent opening up a world, sometimes comes in bare-bones dance--the kind that strips the stage of props, of story, of much of its magic, leaving your everyday arms and legs, toes and fingers to do the work.

It's the kind of dance Amy Alt and Sheldon B. Smith do. Oh, they make use of costumes and music, but mostly to underline the movement. Take Dance for Two III, performed on their recent program at Link's Hall: in this third version of a duet they've jointly choreographed and performed, Smith wears a three-piece suit, Alt a black dress with a white Peter Pan collar; the music is Vivaldi. But he isn't wearing a shirt, and her dress is so short you can see the bicycle shorts underneathlike the costumes, the piece teasingly plays with formality, largely by contrasting rough, sometimes almost clumsy movement with the music's elegant, ordered. phrases.

The feeling between these two is more friendly than romantic: in the opening they stand at right angles to each other, their gazes intersecting, not meeting. When Smith dips Alt back, she looks bewildered; when a phrase of his accelerates alarmingly, she gets spooked and bolts. In a way the dance is about their intersections, which look almost accidental--she falls, he falls on top of her. In fact Dance for Two III is often so rough it seems improvised, an on-the-spot response to the music (I found out later that the second half was improvised). Part of the pleasure is trying to guess who devised which movement: is Smith's long phrase for arms and hands his own choreography or Alt's witty exploitation of his spidery limbs? At any rate the way he flips up a palm somehow recalls an avian mating dance. The piece ends with a nice contrast to the music: during the last few bars of Vivaldi's triumphal conclusion, Alt and Smith simply lie peacefully tangled on the floor, eyes closed, in a casual embrace that embodies friendship.

Alt's new dance on this program, a work in progress called Dive, evokes the American west, though the piece doesn't so much tell a story as produce an atmosphere: we hear gunshots and a horse galloping in David Pavkovic's score, and the dancers are often lit by subtle flashes like summer lightning or silhouetted, as if by a setting sun. Part of the western effect comes from the choreography: the clapped hands like a gunshot preceding a fall, the grand plies recalling a cowboy's legs bowed around his horse, the dancers supine, hands crossed on chests and feet to the wall, like dead gunslingers in a row. The knee pads and black lacy stockings of Ann Boyd's quirky costumes for the women (Alt, Tonray Ho, Jenna Hunt, and Kristina Weaver; Smith completes the ensemble) express both the romantic, lyrical side of the choreography--Alt's phrases are fluid and continuous, especially compared to Smith's--and the athleticism and wit that punctuate the dance, particularly the slides across the floor on the knees.

The short, clean, abrupt phrases of Smith's 1992 quartet Rawl Plug make the dance seem an elegant timekeeping device, driven by Bruce Gilbert's almost metronomic rock music. The dancing--by Alt, Hunt, Atalee Judy, and Dardi McGinley--often looks quick, clean extensions and retractions of the limbs. Dancers are often carried and set down, still seated, like mannequins. But Smith creates enough texture to break any potential monotony, some dancers may be on the floor while others stand, and the dance is marked by quick, unexpected exits and entrances, often in headlong runs, and by an occasional embrace. Taken together with the dancers' occasional manipulation of others (carrying them, or pulling another person's arm down), these infrequent embraces suggest a machine powered by feelings almost completely submerged.

Smith's 5 Line Sheave, a work in progress, is not quite as astringent, though the score by Radon Daughters (Smith himself) sometimes sounds like machinery running, sometimes like static. Julie Hopkins's soft white costumes gently splotched with paint look peaceful, almost pastoral. The piece opens slowly: four dancers--Meredith Bristol, Hopkins, Tatiana Sanchez, and Robert Stewart--form a tableau while Smith uncurls behind them. When he steps to a couple facing each other and walks between them, they show almost no reaction, though the woman does reorient herself slightly, turning her head in Smith's direction.

I don't really know what 5 Line Sheave is about, though the title and the occasional hand wiping a brow suggest farm labor. The dance's most striking features are some complicated group partnering--four dancers linked in ways so intricate they suggest the Tharp of Sue's Leg--and a phrase in which one dancer holds another by the thighs as he leans forward like the figurehead on a ship or like a dreamer about to launch himself from a cliff in the mistaken, or true, belief that he can fly. A few gestures suggest strong emotions: one dancer hovers solicitously over another who's fallen, and in the final image one dancer abruptly leaps into the arms of another and he cradles her, turning slowly in place.

It isn't as if all of 5 Line Sheave were suggestive or moving; there are stretches whose tedium comes into focus when it's broken by more exciting, innovative movement, such as a dancer being hoisted and propped against the wall to scramble slowly against it like a moon walker freed from gravity. In fact all four pieces contain phrases and motions we've seen before, which can be deadly in "pure" dance. No worlds will open up if all we see are arms and legs in familiar, dancey motions. In the works in progress, these sections may be placeholders for more interesting movement to come. I hope so, because we need accomplished young choreographers and dancers--and these are accomplished indeed--to put themselves on the line. Otherwise no new worlds will be unleashed by a finger crooked or gaze shifted, by a drooping shoulder or lifted chest.

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

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