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Second-Hand Stylishsess
 By Mae G. Banner

Sean Curran Company
The Egg, Feb. 8

Ten years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and four years in the pushbroom-shoving, garbage-can-lid-clashing troupe Stomp have given choreographer Seán Curran a ready-made notoriety, not to mention lots of material to recycle.

Curran is fine with that. He calls himself a collagist, a postmodern appropriator of everything from the Irish stepdancing he excelled in as a child to the taken-for-granted gender-bending and color-mixing of Jones/Zane. In the Seán Curran Company concert last Friday at the Egg, I saw the crayon-colored costumes of Trisha Brown, the goofy exuberance of Mark Morris, the forward-backward phrases of Twyla Tharp, and more.

This appropriation works because Curran processes everything he borrows through his own architectural Cuisinart. What comes out is the opposite of mush. Curran’s dances cut clean shapes in the air and blade-sharp designs on the floor. His dancers move fast, jump high, and exude delight in what they’re doing. If dance were an Olympic sport, the Curran troupe would get high ratings for technique and presentation.

And for music: Curran has a taste for music with tricky multiple beats and primordial melodies. The concert led off with Abstract Concrete (2000) and Metal Garden (2001), both dances from a triptych of works set to percussion scores by Tigger Benford.

Abstract Concrete juxtaposed slow, flowing group patterns with break-loose sequences, danced on a black floor marked with wide white horizontal stripes. In one section, each dancer repeated her or his own phrase, yet they moved together in satisfying consort. There was an Eastern feel to a spatial composition of four angled arms (like the goddess Kali, who personifies creation and destruction) and a gymnastic male sequence of jumping jacks and leaps. In all, the dance was showy, simple and bold.

Metal Garden stepped further into Asian territory with the dancers’ bobbing heads and twisty hips bouncing off the sound of gongs in Benford’s gamelan-like score. A natural clown, Curran walked four times through the field of three couples, carrying garden tools: a watering can, a ladder, and finally a little red faun, all of which brought a certain earthy touch to the couples gamboling.

Curran and his dancers have fun and games, but never lose their tight technique. He is a mischief-maker, but with exacting standards. These were apparent in Symbolic Logic (1999) performed to the trance-making chanting of Sheila Chandra. At one point, a baby in the audience began droning aloud to Chandra’s recorded “Shanti” chant. His voice fit right in with the slow and elaborate shapes made by three trios of dancers. This was my favorite dance on the program. I luxuriated in its code-like arm designs and elastic stretches. As the dance progressed, I found myself sitting straighter, my eyes opening wider, drawn by these quietly arresting shapes.

The final piece, “Folk Dance for the Future” (1997), was meant to contrast with the lovely “Symbolic Logic,” but, in fact, the two had a lot in common. A full-company work danced to traditional Irish mouth music, Folk Dance shared Logic’s grounding in tradition, its constant repetition, and bone-deep rhythms. Still, Curran made Folk Dance as a friendly parody of Michael Flatley’s cheesy extravaganzas. As such, it is a riot. The dancers, barefoot and in plaid kilts, give the Riverdance colleens and blades a run for their money as they circle, reel and pose, coyly or manfully, waiting for the applause. Curran does a Flatley-faced solo with windmill arms and spins that nails the Lord of the Dance’s outsized ego.

Living Legacy
 By Mae G. Banner

Martha Graham Dance Ensamble
Skidmore College Dance Theatre, Feb. 9

The old ones were the best. If audience members who thronged to see the junior Martha Graham Dance Ensemble last Saturday at Skidmore College wanted to know Graham’s aesthetic, they got it in undiluted form via two solos created by her company members.

Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown (1938) and Ethel Winter’s En Dolor—A Woman’s Lament (1944) punched Graham’s torso-centered dramatic power straight to the gut. Lucky dancer Jennifer Conley got to do Dudley’s shuckin’ and truckin’ moves to the old-time blues of Sonny Terry. Adding another line to Terry’s changing rhythms, Conley went slogging in flat-footed determination, then broke into wonderful jumps that snapped her body high, but kept her knees bent, the better to land unscathed. Stoically, she stepped through mud and hard times, then flung her body into a stretched-out cakewalk and a final hallelujah.

Rachel Grisi, dancing En Dolor, was fire and ice in a long black dress licked with red flames. She lurched in the severe contractions that are Graham’s kinetic legacy, moving in turn to the music of Manuel DeFalla. While her upper body shifted, almost machine-like, in these highly controlled shudders, Grisi’s fluid hips led the counter-rhythm. The whole dance projected a fierce, but reined-in, energy that was mesmerizing.

Founded in 1983, the ensemble is the younger, touring arm of the Martha Graham Dance Company, which has been disbanded for two years because of legal issues. The 11-member ensemble, directed by former Graham principal and Skidmore alumnus Kenneth Topping, are legally permitted to demonstrate segments of Graham’s dances in free showings, but not to dance the full works in paid performances.

Saturday’s concert opened with Topping’s homage to Graham, Affirmation: A Dancer’s Ritual (2001), danced to live onstage piano and percussion. Affirmation is a primer in the Graham technique. The nine dancers begin, sitting cross-legged on the floor. In unison, they contract from the gut, then release in a controlled extension of their torsos. They elaborate on this basic move, twisting into spirals, reaching an arm skyward. Finally they’re impelled to stand, run, prance and dance triplet beats across the floor. Topping divides the men from the women, giving each gender their own moves, either leaping or speeding, until they come full circle to end where they began.

Between Two Worlds (1998), by Virginie Victoire Mecene, was a bittersweet duet between an intense Maurizio Nardi and delicate Yuko Suzuki. Filled with asymmetric lifts and swinging lifts, it implied a “catch me if you can” story that climaxed in Suzuki’s suspenseful “yes-no-yes” surrender.

Gershwin’s bluesy Nocturne provided the scaffolding for Bertram Ross’s quartet of the same name. The 1981 dance was a living sculpture for Nardi, Suzuki, Alejandro Chavez and Melissa McCorkle, all of whom slid or wrapped their legs and arms around each other in an ever-changing set of innocently pliant designs. They created a gentle, floating current, which they dammed abruptly with a sudden, playful twist of their heads.

One of Graham’s favorite principals, Yuriko, made the program’s final dance, 3 Celebrations (1966). Set to Vivaldi concertos, this work for the full company looked like a Paul Taylor clone, all swinging arms, fast runs, “escape” jumps, and cartwheels. Derivative, yes, but, why not? After all, Taylor danced with Graham’s company in the early 1950s, and he’s still drawing on what he learned there.

—M.G.B.


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