One loves dance as theater. The other is a movement sensualist. One is girlish. The other is womanly. Jenny McAllister, the girlish one with a red ponytail, whose thin arms ripple with muscle, comes into a rehearsal space weighed down with ideas, notes, music, and costume designs. She begins with singular focus to construct a dance, building unfinished phrases on her dancers, the way a painter might make a sketch of a scene before painting it. Then, bit by bit, McAllister fills in the details and refines the movement, using lighting and costuming as critical effects.
Emma Huckabay, the womanly one, hair elegantly streaked with bits of gray, enters a dance space empty-handed. She says she doesn't want to be burdened with props, shards of ideas for moves, music spreadsheets. For one thing, she doesn't have time for preparation, being the single working mother of a 12-year-old. But she also wants to avoid contriving what happens. "Jenny and I are both extremely organized and detail-oriented in our moneymaking day jobs," says Huckabay, the accounting manager at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. But as a choreographer, she says, she wants to let go and discover what comes out. That's why, according to McAllister, a benefits specialist, "when Emma enters the studio, she simply 'channels' movement" -- like a voluptuous Shirley MacLaine in tights.
The founders of Huckabay McAllister, as the two call their company, regard themselves as family -- extended, that is, perhaps second cousins who feel enough kinship to be uniquely linked, but not so much as to generate sibling rivalry or spiteful meditations on the frequency of genetic mutation in the family tree. Their bond is practical, the way the bonds of farm families once were: Running a small modern-dance company is a daunting venture, in which each person has to do a little of everything, from costuming and marketing to bake sale baking. Sharing that responsibility with another independent choreographer makes the operation more viable.
Still, the joint venture would be a rickety enterprise if the women didn't share more than artistic hardship. Like most couples, Huckabay and McAllister are linked at the proverbial hip by taste and sensibility. Their predilection just happens to be dark, sexy, and a little wacked. "Both of us have a really sick sense of humor," Huckabay says, laughing. "Things that are really gross or icky to other people we giggle at. We're also sex maniacs. Because this comes up in our work, we share it with our dancers, and have huge conversations in rehearsal about such things as butt plugs. We work at a very primal level. But we also have a really high aesthetic."
"I think I have an odd sense of humor -- a black sense of humor," says McAllister during a break in rehearsal at Cowell last week. "I laugh at horror movies."
In her upcoming premiere, Luck of the Draw, a fragmented fable about fortune and superstition set in the Ozarks, McAllister has made the dance the macabre base for odd encounters between lovers, a beautiful woman with a divining rod, her mother's ghost, and a priest. She has a nose for the drama in small things. In her recent piece Three Conversations on the Same Subject (a title devised long before the movie 13 Conversations About One Thing came out, she avers), first performed in June, three couples execute similar movements in three radically different moods, from deep intimacy to rage to new infatuation. Besides being a demonstration of dancers' styles, Three Conversations offers the audience a quiet treatise on the ability of identical movements to appear to change based on the emotional coloring given them, the way a landscape seems to alter with the weather.
In theory, Huckabay's sexy, wacked side may gravitate toward the kinky or weird, but in practice it manifests itself in poignant, tormented sensuality -- even when dancers in tuxedos and chiffon crawl the perimeter of the stage as would-be cows, as they do in her latest piece, Lucy You Can't Go to the Club Tonight. In a 1996 solo, reprised this weekend by the protean Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Huckabay honors her father, for whom surviving family members said nine novenas following his death. She wants the solo to express the extremity of grief, and to achieve this, she has Stuart perform the dance of anguish naked from the waist up.
"Through that one thing -- being topless -- Erin became incredibly vulnerable and raw," Huckabay says. "She changed." Given Huckabay's finely honed attention to fingers, footpads, toes, breasts, and shoulder blades, as well as the space between the parts, Stuart's entire form conveys nuanced expression during the solo. The effect is at once intensely human and virtuosic, animalistic and angelic. "When you grieve you look for life, and the sensual and the sexual automatically come into it," Huckabay says.
Huckabay and McAllister may be an odd couple, but it turns out they're in good company. Unusual alliances have fed invention since modern dance was born -- from the partnership of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn or Martha Graham and Louis Horst to that of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane. Maybe these peculiar associations arise because, as great as it is to dance alone, it's a double pleasure when someone's watching.