American Repertory Steps Into Living History


Wearing archetypal Mexican peasant clothes and bandoliers, Bonnie Oda Homsey and John Pennington march wearily across the stage of Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, depicting an arduous journey to the accompaniment of music by Kenneth Klauss. Sometimes he slumps to the floor and she pulls him along. Sometimes she nearly collapses backward and he supports her. Wherever they're going, neither could make it alone and so their solidarity becomes as much a subject of the dance as their indomitable endurance.

Titled "To Jose Clemente Orozco," the duet seems to offer a humanistic perspective on the grim current situation in Chiapas or perhaps the new tensions along the Mexican-American border--except that modern dance pioneer Lester Horton created it 45 years ago in this city, shortly before his death. Directed by Don Martin, its presence Sunday on a 10-part program of California choreography reminds us of how much accessible and pertinent dance art has been lost to contemporary audiences by attrition and accidents of history. And it also explains why such ambitious forays into dance archeology by the locally based American Repertory Dance Company are so cherished by those privileged to see them.

These programs aren't anything like museum exhibitions of dusty relics and curios. They're more like time-travel, living history or a treasure hunt, providing miraculous reassurance that in a perilous era for American dance, we can remain in contact with the prime creators of modernism. Some of these points of contact were retrieved from films or notation (a process that sounds easy but teems with pitfalls) and some have been laboriously pieced together from photographs, printed descriptions and the memories of former dancers.

For instance, it took Peter Hamilton two years to reconstruct "On My Mother's Side," a suite of biographical solos by Charles Weidman from 1939 (music by Lionel Nowak). The subject, appropriately enough, is heritage: character and even creativity as a legacy from generations past. Happily the performance by Douglas Nielsen focused on the essence of each individual, deftly sketching everyone's quirks through gesture but avoiding any easy, condescending caricature.

Just as Nielsen brought us close to Weidman's imposing great-grandfather and ditsy aunt among others, Victoria Koenig deftly contemporized the hopeless romantic longings of a cloistered young woman in her realization of Carmelita Maracci's atmospheric ballet solo "Evocation," circa 1953.

Michele Larsson's re-creation of Eve Gentry's antic "Antenna Bird" from 1956 and Kauroun Tootikian's staging of Ruth St. Denis' swirling "Kasmiri Nautch" from 1906 each boasted splendidly vivid performances--from Nancy Colahan in the former solo, Homsey in the latter.

Not everything worked equally well, however. Danced by Janet Eilber, Risa Steinberg, Colahan and Homsey, a collage of rarities by early fusion innovator Michio Ito--mostly from the late 1920s--proved too brief and elliptical in Taeko Furusho's reconstructions. A longer statement of Ito's radically stylized movement designs might project more forcefully. On Sunday, the most successful solo may have been the earliest: the formal, semaphoric, 1916 "Pizzicati," sharply executed by Steinberg.

Created 10 years earlier, St. Denis' "Incense" found Colahan excellent at defining the voluptuous body image of that era and working artfully to make her arm movements evoke trails of smoke. But the solo really requires a star to convey its exotic glamour, a diva even. Fine dancing sometimes just isn't enough.

Most of the works on the program--and a great deal of American modern dance in what can be called the age of the great soloists--adopted a tightly focused movement vocabulary in a relatively tiny spatial field. In choreographing a brand-new work for American Rep, the always thoughtful Donald McKayle observed the same conditions as his predecessors, keeping Michelle Simmons in or close to a chair throughout "Supplication" and generating interest through small-scale movement events: the shimmer of fingers, for example. Indeed, you might have mistaken the solo for antique exotica except for one dead giveaway: McKayle used authentic world music (by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) instead of the classical piano etudes favored in the past.

Familiar company revivals of works by Agnes de Mille and Doris Humphrey completed the program. Taped music accompanied most of the dancing, but pianist Althea Waites brought "Evocation" an extra immediacy by her performance of the Albeniz score.

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