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Where’s the context? Buglisi Dance Theatre.

Tiny Steps

By French Clements

Buglisi Dance Theatre

The Egg, April 18

Artistic heritage is a tricky thing, recalling that line comparing tourism to fire: It will cook your food, but it can also burn your house down. In her dances, Jacqulyn Buglisi seems to have catalogued her dozen years as a performer with the Martha Graham Dance Company in a similar way, one that both summarizes her venerable heritage and misses its point. Watching this work is like eating delicious food in a burned-down house.

Buglisi Dance Theatre brought five dances to The Egg’s smaller theater, the Swyer, last week, for a one-night engagement while the company creates new work in a residency at the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli. (Performances there run April 26 and 27.)

Like all of Buglisi’s repertory, the new work, titled Interplay 3/5, aims high. It contains a key element of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and George Balanchine’s Duo Concertant: The dancers interact with onstage musicians. In those two seminal pieces, made as the 1960s were yawning shut, the piano becomes a kind of hang-out spot. Dancers draw close to listen and smile dorkily, then wander off to launch some new bravura. Ballet dancers acknowledging musicians? The subversion restored faith in classicism. Though Buglisi repeats it here, it’s a limp device begging for context.

Jerome Robbins made an early dance called Interplay, but aside from the plotless, jovial ramblings of young bodies, it’s not clear that Buglisi’s Interplay shares much else with its predecessor. The work opens naively enough, although naiveté, physically, isn’t the best match for Bach’s towering piano, played here live by Melody Fader. (Fakest musician name ever?) The nine dancers looked overwhelmed by their script, which set a movement for nearly every note. The steps—earnest hops and spins, and spacious, earthy arm gestures—were clever, but the small stage strained to accommodate so much rushing.

The performers for Interplay 3/5 were well-rehearsed, and the episodic work grew stronger when it slowed for breath. Standouts included So-Young An, a reedy woman held aloft by uncommon force, and Marie Zvosec, who filled her solo with an electrified urgency, artless and stiff as if for good reason. (Other dancers didn’t trust in Buglisi’s steps the way Zvosec did. At one point, she shook her blonde hair from her face while shredding through a bit of deviltry. It looked flawless, as if part of the otherwise fastidious choreography.) These strengths did not coalesce. Buglisi’s long training in the iceberg drama of her mentor seemed a flimsy preparation for more lighthearted stagecraft.

A similar problem coursed through the few selections of Caravaggio Meets Hopper. What one painter has to do with the other, I couldn’t tell by this piece, nor by its maudlin snatches of audio from Casablanca, the part with “a hill of beans” and, worse, “Here’s looking at you.” The dancers looked embarrassed during a passage that mimed swing dance, forcing out jazz-hands to Benny Goodman.

The oldest work, a duet titled . . . ing, was more successful, and closer to a traditional Graham dance. Set to Brahms’s second piano sonata, . . . ing was choreographed in 1992 by Donlin Foreman, another Graham veteran and a cofounder, with Buglisi, of this company in 1994, three years after Graham’s death. The hallmarks of their leader’s example were clear. Dancers Kevin Predmore and Virginie Mécène, also Graham stalwarts, merged an intentional awkwardness into pastoral innocence, sending expansive arms and legs outward from a pliable torso. Predmore and Mécène didn’t enact dance steps so much as obey patterns of musical energy that twined up and around their limbs. Although you expected a cartwheel at any moment, a tempest brooded just behind the dance’s sunny day. It was quaint but honorable.

It’s hard to recall specific steps from Buglisi’s choreography because she evokes moods through repetition of major-key tones. Too infrequent are the messages sent through a concerted movement dialogue.

Take Requiem, which would barely have existed without its props: sumptuous ball gowns, wooden boxes, and, about as literally, the work’s five female dancers. Requiem, inspired by the post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi, bore an austerity that—as with other dances here—might be interpreted as self-importance. The work’s final image of decapitation seems an odd echo of Artemisia’s well-known work Judith Slaying Holofernes. It was mystifying why this heroine of proto-feminism would feel honored by a woman’s headlessness.

Martha Graham was great because she knew our mysteries, and she knew how to manipulate them into convincing, pitch-perfect theater. She reconstructed archetypes, not clichés. Less so, Buglisi. No one benefits from comparison with a master, but neither has Buglisi unveiled truly incomparable material.

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