Leonora Panich is a dancing psychic who makes herself the vehicle for natural and spiritual forces. She does not try to dance a depiction of the wind, for instance, but believes that the wind itself possesses and propels her.
Beginning with hands pressed against her sides, Panich channels the wind in gusts of hand-undulations over her head and sudden, convulsive whirling/shuddering motions of her body--ending with her arms held back and down, head and shoulders bent forward.
"It's too much for my frail body," she says, and you can accept her sense of being a mere instrument ("It has nothing to do with me") overwhelmed by her mission.
Reading the signatures of audience members off cards placed in a basket, Panich falls into intense movement sketches of these strangers ("their spirit levels only," she makes clear) and then verbally advises the subjects of what her dancing signifies.
Obviously, Panich's "Psychic Portraits" program belongs outside the normal purview of theatrical dance (and criticism). Yet it reflects the same connection to primal verities sought by modern-dance pioneers and also shares with '80s performance art a dedication to unadorned, personal truth-telling.
But where an idiom such as Japanese butoh will confront the darker processes of our existence, Panich seems drawn chiefly to positive energies, hopeful outlooks.
Appropriately, she appeared Saturday at the Ruth St. Denis Studio Theatre, Universal City--the last performing space for that great star, teacher and mystic of early modern dance. (A vintage photo-poster of St. Denis enveloped in drapery--at once madonna and nautch dancer--faces the stage.)
Accompanied by percussion washes improvised by Kabbalah Bach, Panich's dancing sometimes amounted to a few compelling poses or gestures explained at length, the debriefings longer and less eloquent than the movement.
At other times, confusions arose, at least to this onlooker. Is dancing joyfully the same as embodying the elemental spirit of joy itself? Does she have a problem that makes her screen out male subjects and male energies? Still, Panich has seized one of the deepest functions of dance and unsparingly followed it away from entertainment and back towards holistic religion. That alone makes her a pathfinder of a distinctly benign, Californian kind.