Light in the loafers

When my eyes landed on the definition of "arabesque" in Webster's Dictionary, a thought hit me with the force of a quick, hard wedgie: I'm a fraud.

I was researching to write this review of one program in Deep Ellum Opera Theatre's March series, A Month of Dance. Webster's was the last shoulder I had to cry on after making a short visit to the downtown public library to flip through a series of books on contemporary choreography. Half of that I didn't understand, and the other half I didn't think applied to what I had seen in this showcase of poetry and modern dance by Dallas-based choreographer Karen Robinson, who serves as general director of DEOT.

I rushed into Webster's comforting arms with a mental list of terms I had read in dance reviews, to see how I could work those into an explanation of why I, a dance neophyte, so enjoyed the evening at Deep Ellum Opera Theatre. A reference to "arabesque" here and there would make my review not only knowledgeable, but pithy. Who could lose with a word as ornate as that?

"Arabesque," I discovered, is exclusive to ballet when used as a dance description. Sadly, there were no arabesques among the graceful, frantic, tortured, and luxurious moves in these six original dances. There was a startling variety of moods that were ordered with a craftswoman's appreciation for suspense; the end of each half of the evening exploded in a crescendo of intense, jagged moves. I realized during each half that I was being manipulated in much the same way a successful two-act play works you, sans denouement. I was expected to tie my own ends together, or risk doing something boisterous--bolt from the Theatre On Elm Street with the blood pounding in my arms, legs, and ears, unused energy acquired by osmosis that threatened to short-circuit the left side of my brain. In other words, I longed to dance my way back to the car, interpretively. A healthy sense of my own limits, not to mention two cops loitering outside, kept the urge leashed.

I can credit a large part of the evening's success to the words of Dalton James, a local actor-composer-poet who read his sorrowful but snappy verse onstage, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of a dancer. I could easily discuss his poetry and the way it seemed to conduct the symphony of conflicted emotions that swelled from Karen Robinson's choreography and the wise motions of her dancers, but since I hope to profile the performer very soon in these pages, let me summarize by saying he was way cool.

The spoken word is a helluva lot easier to comment about than the body in motion. This realization gripped me like an icy claw throughout the first three dances. "Silent Conference" (1988)--set to a synthesized Gregorian-chant like chorus of women's voices--began and ended with Shannon Leyrer gripping her own shoulders like a lonely child, back turned to the audience. What flowed in between was a contemplative duet for one, as Leyrer dipped her arms into swoops and swirls, the fingertips of each hand sometimes clasped to a point like a crab pincer.

"Las Somnambulas" (1996) looked like a sadomasochist's wet dream translated into choreography. Leyrer begins the piece alone, seemingly pinned to the stage floor by gravity and her own desire for peaceful sleep. A succubus charges onstage several minutes into Leyrer's revery and enlists her in an attraction/repulsion tango. Leyrer can't reconcile her own desires for unconditional support from her dream partner with the ambivalence and little flashes of hostility the other dancer displays. Thorny tests of trust that inspire no trust at all catalyze the piece.

"Anxiety," a premiere, featured Mollie Melugin almost literally bouncing off the walls, the fast, tense staccato of her movements winding her down until she could only shuffle sideways across the floor, her body bending in and out of a fetal position in what looked like a combination crabwalk and crawl.

I was enjoying what I saw, but my critic's brain wasn't churning out analogies and insights because the pleasure was seated in a foggy plane deep inside my subconscious where neanderthal men and women gyrate around a flickering campfire. This is a sacred place where only a select few entertainment experiences--watching Gene Kelly leap and twirl in technicolor, or listening to a Parliament Funkadelic album--can take me.

Therefore, I decided to switch off my critic's mind and try to groove with what Karen Robinson and the three dancers were communicating nonverbally. And suddenly, it occurred to me--the only way to enjoy this show was to project myself into the bodies of the dancers and try to move with them. A return to my drinking days would've been helpful in this endeavor, although I quickly remembered why I quit in the first place--the next morning, I wouldn't have remembered a damn move we'd made.

The blonde-braided Shannon Leyrer returned in pale emerald pants and blouse for the night's most humorous piece, "What Will Be." A beat-box groove pounded in the back as she kindled the soul of a machine with the friction between her helpless face and her mechanized motions. At one point her arms and legs leapt out of her control and into a spasm of shudders. "Escape" was a mournful update of "Los Somnambulas," as Leyrer and Ewert-Pittman maneuvered their way through gentle, vaguely erotic interchanges that suggested the farewells of a dying lover. The evening's one false note happened as the lights faded and Ewert-Pittman, cradled in Leyrer's arms, shoots her arm up and wiggles her fingers in a vaguely "I'm going down for the third time" gesture that was jarring. The night's other premiere, "C.T.," set to Kronos Quartet's version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," found Ewert-Pittman struggling to tether herself offstage with giant bands of cloth that always snapped out of her grasp.

Descriptions of Karen Robinson's choreography inevitably miniaturize the eloquent sweep of her muse. I found her work to be much like the woman herself in the few conversations I've had with her--low-key, confident, reaching for something bigger than herself but refusing to sentimentalize that effort in baroque gesture. These six dances contain no waving, kicking leaps or distracting downshifts for a cheap tableau. There was a natural (dare I say logical?) emotional progression in each of her dances. If her installment of DEOT's "A Month of Dance" had proven to be a collage of formalistic flourishes, I probably would've felt alienated, even more like a clueless plebe than when I stepped through the doors. Robinson's dancers didn't scoff at me, they soothed and energized my mind and body.

A Month of Dance runs through Mar 29. Call 745-4544.


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