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Times Dance Writer

Blondell Cummings makes documentary dances--genre portraits with a difference.

In fashioning her distinctive character vignettes, the New York performer/choreographer takes human behavior and subjects it to photographic--rather than choreographic--processing. She isolates emblematic gestures as if collecting movement snapshots. She then repeats them, like film or tape loops, in bold rhythmic patterns and often breaks them down into sequential motion-components--as if explicating life frame by frame.

Cummings’ “Food for Thought” suite, on the “Explorations” series, Thursday at the Japan America Theatre, consistently used this kind of formal manipulation to freshen the most commonplace subjects and mime skills.

Whether portraying a woman engaged in household tasks (“Chicken Soup”) or a man working at a construction site (“Meat and Potatoes”), she came on strong: lots of forceful, utilitarian motion and, particularly, energetic arm/hand movement supporting vivid characterizations.


As these characters went about their work, Cummings achieved emphasis through speedups/slowdowns, disruptions of continuity (jump cuts?) or shifts in scale (close-ups?). Thus, despite its stylized movement forms derived from modern dance and sign language, her performance seemed less like a conventional dance drama than a documentary film: an arrangement of authentic raw material.

Only in the “Chocolate” finale did she venture an orthodox dance-composition, a movement study fusing form and content. And, suddenly--wearing a cloth body-hood like Martha Graham’s in “Lamentation” 55 years ago--she looked like any first-year dance student failing at her first expressive etude. Indeed, every Christmas, many “Nutcracker” divertissements come closer to physically representing the attributes and appeal of chocolate ( and coffee and tea, as well) than this timid solo.

Her brief program Thursday proved that Cummings is a sharp observer, a sensational editor and a compelling performer, too. But, for now, creating dances seems beyond her; she can only process and manipulate what already exists. Without found material, she’s lost.