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Dayton Contemporary Dance Company / BAM: Harvey Theater / December 9-13, 2003

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC to its friends) has been celebrating its 35th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the Ohio-born Wright Brothers’ first successful launch into space with “The Flight Project.” Comprising five commissioned works (from Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller, Dwight Rhoden, Doug Varone, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar) plus a company premiere (by Warren Spears), it was delivered as a pair of programs at BAM’s Harvey Theater, the final stop on an extended tour.

Certainly the subject of the human body’s sloughing off earthly shackles to claim air as its element is apt for dance, given the art’s constant challenge to gravity’s pull and its ecstatic emotional dimension, often equated with soaring. But from the program I saw (Rhoden, Miller, Varone) and from program notes and interviews with the choreographers (those wily print devices that tell what a dance can’t say), it appeared that the dance makers had interpreted their subject so loosely as to make it well nigh invisible. The actual show looked to me like business as usual—extraordinary dancers in dances that are competent enough, but more the diversions of an evening than items headed for history, the combination arranged into the glossy packaging that ensures survival in our times.

Rhoden’s Sky Garden, set to a New Age score by Antonio Carlos Scott) and purportedly an homage to DCDC’s indomitable founder, the late Jeraldyne Blunden, serves only as a showcase for the company’s stunning dancers. The women, many of them compactly built with ample, gloriously muscled buttocks and thighs, epitomize the post-feminist ideal of powerful-and-sexy. They look as if their bodies have been honed by a combination of a gutsy modern dance technique (perhaps Martha Graham’s), classical ballet, and weight training—with an occasional jazz class thrown in to provide rhythmic sizzle. The gentlemen, in general, are considerably taller and slimmer than their ladies and—predictably for their more willowy build—more lyrical. Everyone is sensationally strong, swift, and fluid—capable, for instance, of shooting up into the air in extravagant postures without taxiing on the runway.

Neatly and logically arranged, infused with an energy that borders on the violent, the choreography for five couples (one of them “more equal than others”) is, like most of Rhoden’s efforts, all surface sensation, remarkably devoid of subtext. This, I think, is why you can’t get your attention to adhere to it for more than twenty seconds at a stretch: vivid as all get-out, it says absolutely nothing.

Aerodigm (with music from Giovanni Sollima, Jurgen Knieper, and Laurie Anderson) is typical of Bebe Miller’s work: thoughtful, touching, occasionally whimsical, deeply textured, a little muddled, luminous with a simplicity and an integrity that are regrettably rare today. Bette Kelley’s disarming costumes, a fanciful cross between pajamas and farm clothes in faded shades of blue, gray, and brown, reflect the down-home air of the choreography in which rural working folk are seen to have dreams, fears, and visions—perhaps even more resourceful ones than the world’s Haves. A fanciful introduction involving the juggling of three golden balls no larger than spaldeens is succeeded by a hoe-down section, a dark night of the soul section, and a sanguine conclusion that finishes with the plump, contagiously joy-filled girl who drew us into Miller’s imaginary world at the start sailing cross-stage on roller skates to assure us that all is well. Thanks to Miller’s gift for calibrating tone, none of this is corny. All it needs is an editor—or perhaps a gardener, to clear out the underbrush and let the trees stand tall.

Doug Varone boldly (recklessly, if you will) co-opted Stravinsky’s Firebird score for his contribution, The Beating of Wings, but apart from some references to the old Russian tale that the composer drew on and the ballets subsequently choreographed to the music (Fokine’s the first and finest among them), he essentially made a Varonesque work. In it, he explores, once again, the effect on an insular community of an outsider who differs so drastically in kind from the natives that the encounter is doomed to darkness and turbulence, even disaster.

Here the intruder (ferociously played by Sheri “Sparkle” Williams) is a tiny, tight-wound woman who yearns for flight but is curiously incapacitated. The community, led by two large men who act as her handlers, are a gentle, loving bunch, who first try hands-on physical rehab and large doses of sympathy. When it becomes clearer, through the woman’s wide-eyed fear and spastic trembling, that her problem is psychic, they assist her in meeting her doomed fate. (The rigging by which the dancer is hauled skyward in a flickering shaft of lurid light provides its own sense of fatal danger.)

The message of the piece seems to be that a close-knit group, whose bonding depends on a mutual definition of normalcy, can’t possibly absorb the aberrant exile because they can’t know her. She lies outside their limits; despite their good will and best efforts, all they can do is help her fulfill her destiny as victim or saint.

I like the obsessiveness with which Varone has returned to the outsider/insiders theme, once again giving it a new setting and angle of view. I like the understanding and respect he shows for the souls on both sides of the dilemma. And I admire his ability—inconsistent though it may be—to convey such a subject through dance. But we are at some distance here from Kitty Hawk.

Photo credit: Paul Kolnik: Doug Varone’s The Beating of Wings

© 2003 Tobi Tobias

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