Looking carved from ebony in poses evoking a lost North African or Middle Eastern culture, Winifred R. Harris and two of her dancers (Miko Doi-Smith and Catherine Ybarra) stood onstage in Schoenberg Hall on Saturday for the premiere of Harris' "Thunder Is Not Yet Rain."
The music of Dead Can Dance and the lighting of Eileen Cooley heightened the sculptural exoticism of the women's powerful, measured movement--the latest example of a deep, sophisticated creative sensibility that has made Harris and her Between Lines company indispensable to Los Angeles dance in the 1990s.
There's often a sense of mystery in Harris' dances, a core of meaning revealed only partially through a gesture and body language rich in influences and implications but ultimately private.
Thus the formal groupings and tests of balance in "Thunder Is Not Yet Rain" not only offered a strikingly multidimensional statement of women's bodies in space, but also seemed to connect Harris to the whole eternal timeline of female feeling and expression--womanhood as the primal theme of world dance. Of course, your interpretation may differ.
No enigmas diluted "A Water Ballet," a 1992 Harris ensemble piece receiving its local premiere on the largely familiar UCLA program. Paul Tayloresque in its use of Handel as a springboard for all-American athleticism, it achieved its measure of originality in bathing-beauty poses and swimming gambits at once satiric yet sensuous.
Harris likes to distinguish between behavior and essence, so poolside manners and girlie display remained deliberately silly here, but you never believed that women themselves were being mocked. In the same way, the most compelling section of "What's Behind Door 1" showed women performing a whorish jazz dance tease until, one by one, they crumbled in fear or anguish.
Unfortunately, this 1994 social panorama had more in mind than a compassionate view of internalized sexism and, even in a newly simplified version, it proved Harris' least successful work on the program: too long, too sprawling, too bald in its effects.
The sweetly mournful lyricism of the quintet "And Through Their Eyes I See" provided a more essential statement of Harris' choreographic prowess, while the solo "In This Pot" showcased her impressive skills as a performer. But for sustained intensity and masterly movement development, nothing Saturday except "Thunder" matched the 1993 trio "Like a Deer in Headlights," in which Harris created something beautiful from all the risks and fears of living in the '90s.
Beauty from fear? Don't ask how she does it. Dance holds no greater mystery than this.