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In the Dance House 

Can choreographers of different generations be neighbors?

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
When people talk about dance, they often conjure up an image of a large open field with lots of different things growing, all exposed to the same elements. But the dance world is more like a house with thousands of rooms, some palatial, others humble, most with windows opening to the outside, through which we can see a different artist in every room. Some of the rooms spill into one another or have views across distant spaces, or are inhabited by choreographers long dead, while others are hermetically sealed.

This weekend and next, ODC Theater gives us a glimpse of four different artists who, we might say, occupy the Bay Area wing of this house. The younger artists seem to have views onto the work of the older choreographers, despite what is sometimes a great distance between their styles. Nancy Karp and Deborah Slater, both in their 50s, share a program beginning Thursday called "Counter Balance," its cool, structuralist title hinting at dance-makers' different but complementary combinations of rationality and mastery of the physical world. The following Thursday, Rachael Lincoln and Erika Shuch, both in their 20s, appear in "Disclosure," a program that tries to expose big ideas or peel away artifice, even amidst the artifice of performance, to find an enduring reality. There are obvious links between the choreographers of the same generation -- Karp and Slater play with modernist form, while Shuch and Lincoln are drawn to improvisation -- but what is really intriguing are the links between the different generations. They reveal that dance history accumulates like additions on a house that is never finished.

Rooms No. 1 and No. 2: Shuch's four young dancers are in a small storefront studio transformed into a black box theater in San Francisco, rehearsing Choose Something Like a Star. The Mission Street bus goes by, its air brakes squealing, giving the set design -- Sean Riley's living room, with flowers protruding from one wall and blue lights to simulate the sky hanging on the other -- a comically edgy air. Shuch's dancers are deadpan but droll, never heading straight for humor but getting there anyway. The theater becomes a place stuck between heaven and Earth, a place she likens to life's waiting room. As Rowena Richie holds a numbered dartboard to her chest, Jesse Howell pitches real darts, adds up his score, and searches for the audience member with the corresponding number hanging around his neck. Kira Smith leads that person off to be interviewed (he's asked, "What do you think happens after you die?") for live video display, which then becomes part of the performance.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles south in her Valencia Street studio, Deborah Slater is putting the final flourishes on her 1984 piece Out of Disguise, a dance for a woman playing three characters, who enact three dramas on three sleekly hinged chairs that fold open and closed smoothly. Deborah Miller performs a dance that only Slater has performed in the 17 years since she made it. It is laden with ironic fragments of story based on shocking characters Slater encountered in the city -- a potential suicide, a woman who wets herself, and a woman with a series of men visiting her at a restaurant booth -- and continues the discourse, launched by New York choreographers more than 30 years ago, about the place of ordinary life in dance.

Shuch and Slater truck in irony and look to daily dramas for inspiration; each finds the multilayered, prop-rich world of dance theater an apt venue. Yet Slater never directly tackles the tough issues of life and death, and Shuch wanders off into abstract character and audience participation rather than the irony of wrestling with an unpredictable folding chair. The two inhabit different rooms in the dance house, but their rooms are linked. "I want to take big questions of life that are the most intimidating and find a way to make them relatable," Shuch explains. "Everybody asks himself, "Where do we go after we die?' What inspires me is that everybody asks it, but [people] rarely get into a conversation about it." Slater, on the other hand, begins a work by asking personal questions, such as, "How do you deal with the death of your father?" These lead not to large, universal answers, but to quirky and idiosyncratic ones. Slater's characters are as alone as Shuch's are communal, yet both are seized by a daffy humor arising from life's fundamental absurdity.

Rooms No. 3 and No. 4: Across town, Lincoln and one of her duet partners, Krista de Nio, dart and lunge like sinuous animals in the middle of 848, the maverick performance space on Divisadero. Lincoln looks like a fairly recent mugging victim -- her eyebrow shaved to make room for stitches, her eye a liverish blend of blue, green, and yellow bruise. Biking with her family a few weeks ago in the South of France, she rounded a corner and plowed into a man who was blocking the path with his bike as he stopped to pick up a stray shoe. Now Lincoln nurses a deeply bruised, possibly fractured shoulder. She dances cautiously, but she still dances big, and as de Nio takes her weight or hurls her over a shoulder, the injuries enter the dance. De Nio handles Lincoln with preternatural gentleness. "The consistent thing is to be honest onstage," Lincoln says. "I don't want to choreograph moment to moment, but to dance from state of being to state of being." Form is her vehicle, but it is never an end in itself; she uses pattern to convey relationship.

In Karp's room, order and structure dominate. Four men lope in straight lines as they rehearse her 1982 dance Relay Relay in an Emeryville studio. With their arms hanging at their sides and their faces expressionless, they execute ever-shifting patterns, and then their arms suddenly shoot overhead, feet stomping, bodies torquing in fleeting balletic box steps. The runs continue, and the patterns -- devilishly unadorned, mathematically calibrated -- unfold the way geometric forms unfold in a kaleidoscope. "I'm interested in complex structures that hold together," Karp says. "There is a universality to abstraction that can be read across cultures." By contrast, Lincoln wants complex structures that adapt to the moment, from a fractured shoulder to a bad night or a hooting audience of friends. Luckily, in the dance house there is room for both these variations -- and more.

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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