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Slapstick Grace
By Mae G. Banner

Maude Baum and Company Dance Theatre

Palace Theatre, April 30

There’s a reason Maude Baum calls her company Dance Theatre. Founded in the 1970s and influenced by German expressionism, the company is big on dances with meaning, often with theatrical props and explosive talking. Sunday’s concert at the Palace in Albany included satiric dances and dances of torment—and, in Foodface, torment expressed as satire.

A pillar of the Albany dance scene, Baum presents salon concerts every spring and fall in her compact studio at Hudson Avenue and Lark Street. Transplanting these intimate dances to the 2800-seat Palace is a bold leap.

The seven dancers were up to the challenge. They are sturdy and confident and they know how to hold the stage. Plus, they were having a really good time with the “mean girls” competition of Baum’s new Ballerina Barbies and the out-of-control Foodface, an audience favorite from 1992.

Mary Beth Hampshire, Jade Miller, Deb Rutledge, and Sarah Schmidt were the Ballerina Barbies in crisp costumes that evoked Pierrette (Rutledge in a pancake white tutu and pointy hat), Cleopatra (Schmidt in a wig of red tinsel), a village girl from Coppelia and a romantic wafting a butterfly wand.

These dolls enter with arms linked to dance the four baby swans we know so well. Their precision soon devolves into pushing and shoving and knocking each other down. Rutledge, the alpha swan, recovers into a deep plie—a squat, actually—done on point.

It goes on like that. The dancers prance, bourree, and galumph, often to musical quotes from classical ballets. There are cartwheels and somersaults, popguns and slingshots, vocal squeaks and yelps, and just enough ensemble movement to show that these are all good dancers.

They flee the scene, leaving bits of fluff and red tinsel behind. An impassive stage hand cleans up the mess—a nice touch that contrasts make-believe and regular work.

After the nonsense of Barbies, It took a while for the dancers to get into the exalted spirit of the Isadora Duncan dances that followed. These early 20th-century works set to music of Chopin and Gluck and reconstructed for the company by Duncan expert Jeanne Bresciani, are meant to be pure responses to the music, which was performed live by Findlay Cockrell, piano, and Elaine Newhall, flute.

The dancers—the original four plus Kate Bowen—were the picture of health and uncorseted beauty in their flowy togas and bare feet, their bodies molded by David Yergan’s sensitive lighting. But, with the taste of Barbies still in my mouth, their Valse Brillante looked too much like a satire on Duncan’s passionate style.

The Nocturne was lovely. Rutledge discovers Bowen lying on the ground like a slumbering nymph, and, with simple prayerful gestures, revives her. Next, Hampshire, in fiery red, her wrists bound with a red cord, danced the Revolutionary Etude, conveying struggle and sudden triumph.

Newhall’s flute was a perfect foil for the three-part dance to Gluck’s Orpheus. The dancers moved like a frieze of goddesses come down from their pedestals. Here was Duncan’s honesty and simplicity, her joyous sense of play danced full-out.

Torment ruled in Sometimes in My Mind, Always in My Heart, a suite of four solos capped by a quartet to music of Nino Rota and Enya. Baum showed the dance a couple of years ago as a work in progress. It’s now coherent through the use of similar moves in the solos and through spacing that suggests each woman is an aspect of the whole.

Each dancer expresses anxiety in her own way. Miller is a Lady Macbeth who writhes and shudders. Schmidt spins and falls and knows not where to go. Rutledge, a powerful, musical dancer, pivots on one hip, beats the ground, turns cartwheels in her agony. Hampshire, sitting with her back to us on a folding chair, arches back and sinks until her head touches the floor.

In the final ensemble section, the four wrap themselves in a large black shroud and circle like a coven of witches. The resolution comes when we see their heads and legs emerge from the confines of the shroud. What was gloom becomes “we’re all in this together.”

The final romp, Foodface, dissects American obsessions with food. The full company, including Katie Newhall and Chris Wilkins, chop, dice, pour, spill, argue loudly, soliloquize mournfully, and also dance in a conga line and a mod swinging procession. All this goes on around a long seminar table set with bowls and jars and soda bottles for a great potluck.

Dancers juggle lettuces or lemons. They bring audience members onstage to help make the guacamole. There’s a duet in which Rutledge attaches a couple of ripe red tomatoes to her chest and seduces Wilkins with these juicy breasts.

The whole thing ends in a free-for-all of Cool Whip and spaghetti that will likely require more than one stagehand to mop up.

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