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Signals from the solar system

Daniel McCusker at Tufts, Kelley Donovan at the Dance Complex
By DEBRA CASH  |  March 18, 2008
JUPITER: This latest from McCusker is the kind of dance that keeps going on even when you aren’t
looking at it.

Pluto may have been downgraded to a dwarf planet, but Jupiter is still respected for its size, its moons, and the regularity of its orbit. When local dancemaker Daniel McCusker titled his current movement project Jupiter, a piece his Boston-based company performed at the Tufts University Dance Lab at Jackson Gymnasium this past weekend, he says that he meant only that the dance would take the form of five distinct parts augmented by four “satellite dances,” all using and reusing the same movement language.

The title, however, cast an extraterrestrial subtext on the choreography. Like a work by Merce Cunningham, McCusker’s latest seemed to be the kind of dance that keeps going on even when you aren’t looking at it. Jupiter is like a satellite crossing purposefully overhead despite being washed into invisibility by daylight.

Jupiter opens with a solo of gentle containment. McCusker, a thin, grizzled figure in nondescript brown, looked as honed and linear as a whittled whirligig. His solo set up a steady, breathing pace, one that persisted for the hour-long dance whether the sequences were accompanied by Michael McLaughlin’s stripped-down solo accordion playing or performed in a silence broken only by the hum of the gym fan.

Rebecca Lay and Melody Ruffin Ward appeared and performed a brief, intimate duet that they revisited a number of times through the evening. The women tussled, snuggled, and rearranged each other’s shapes with the barest touch of an arm or a thigh. Then they rested, with Ward looking skyward while leaning against Lay’s rounded back as if her partner were a field boulder. When the two women repeated this sequence, they usually presented it exactly the same way, as if they were teaching the audience to pay attention to how it was done. But at least once that I observed they presented it at the end of a new series of movement phrases, so that we learned more about the relationship that created that companionable rest.

Ten other dancers emerged in various combinations through the rest of the work. They moved in a weightless, almost polite way, something I think McCusker has retained from his years dancing in New York with the starker minimalist choreographer Lucinda Childs. The dancing seemed chaste and unruffled, with scooping reaches and freely taken folkloric steps. It was given a lucid reading by the company’s confident, grown-up performers — especially Wanda Strukus, Yenkuei Chuang, and Leah Bergmann.

I couldn’t discern whether particular gestures or movement ideas were associated with particular moons — Europa, Ganymede, Callisto — and Jupiter was maddeningly full of what I have to imagine are blackouts and deliberate false endings. But I liked it best when McCusker let himself get a bit messy around the edges, adding twittering hands or feet that seemed to shake off water to an otherwise unremarkable step, getting unexpectedly literal with some flower-petal-opening hand and wrist movements, or finding the opportunity for incidental resonances among the dancers when they massed like city pedestrians, each taking his or her self-determined path to some private destination.

It must have been a coincidence that a second local contemporary dance troupe performing this weekend also presented an uninterrupted work of just about an hour in length. Kelley Donovan’s Triadic Memories had as few formal signposts as McCusker’s Jupiter, but in contrast to his work she hung her invention on the structure of a sophisticated musical score.

Triadic Memories is the name of a 1981 piano piece by Morton Feldman. Donovan used 45 minutes of this long-duration work, the selection played at the edge of the Dance Complex studio space by dance critic and musician Theodore Bale. There was nothing easy or obvious about her musical choice, and it was not always clear how and why Donovan had aligned particular patterns to the chimes and splintered chords of the score. Nonetheless, Bale played Feldman’s stepwise, decaying chromatics with keen, almost prayerful attention.

Triadic Memories also starts with a solo by the work’s choreographer — but Donovan was not introducing a set of themes and variations. A solid, heavy woman in cropped black clothing, she seemed to be spiraling in an underwater vortex, whipping up energy. This is how she likes to move: we’ve seen this sinuous movement pattern in previous dances. It makes the dancer look as if there were no up or down, no right side up.

Donovan’s ensemble of seven women moved quite differently: more deliberately, more like stupefied human beings than, say, tide-tossed sea flora. Wearing shades of black, brown, and rust, they walked and suddenly bent over double or spooned into one another. They stood stock still and then, for no apparent reason, spun and scattered to different corners. Facing in different directions, they decentered the performing space: this is one dance I’d like to see just once from directly overhead to observe the logic of Donovan’s floor patterns.

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  Topics: Dance , Daniel McCusker , Dance , Performing Arts ,  More more >
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    Daniel McCusker at Tufts, Kelley Donovan at the Dance Complex

 See all articles by: DEBRA CASH

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