The UCLA Dance Company went back to basics and then some Friday in Royce Hall. Except for a lightweight diversion by a visiting East Coast choreographer, the stimulating five-part program explored premises drawn from non-Western and archaic cultures, inventing rituals and folklore to affirm the primal function of dance expression.
In Marion Scott's dreamlike "Legend," a frieze of terra-cotta tomb figures wearing vaguely Pharaonic headgear moved through formal processional rites that were heightened occasionally by intense passages--group keening, insectile hand shivers--and accompanied by everything from soft whistling to loud wails.
Led by Erica Nashan and Sandra Christensen, the dancers themselves performed Pia Gilbert's haunting vocal and percussion score, for Scott's concept involved sculpture that--like the Colossus of Memnon--sings of a lost world. Indeed, the music proved so virtuosic, the movement so minimal, that "Legend" seemed more opera than dance--but, of course, classifying (and separating) disciplines is beside the point, part of the European mind-set that the UCLA program so adroitly bypassed.
Carol Scothorn's "Idyll" offered more mysterious body sculpture--this time five hooded dancers in gray who whipped the long ropes attached to their sleeves to the accompaniment of eerie flute scamperings by Henri Lazarof (played splendidly by Sheridon Stokes).
Despite its obvious debts to Pilobolus (the gymnastic people-towers) and Alwin Nikolais (the tiny shifts and articulations of the movement vocabulary), the piece had enough conceptual ingenuity and performance skill to make its own statement. In particular, those hoods, the lashing motions and some neo-ecclesiastical chain-formations gave it an understated yet distinct penitential fervor.
Margalit Oved Marshall's "The Birds" combined the plot of Aristophanes' satire with music from the Middle East in the kind of rough but vital folk performance you'd be lucky to find in some village square (don't ask where) on an auspicious feast day. The choreographer and Nashan sang lustily and the student dancers flung themselves into the springy, rhythmic ethnic-modern movement as if kinetically ravenous.
In "Singular Flights," Angelia Leung Fisher launched another of her essays in moody, ceremonial post-modernism--her sense of space as striking as ever, her choice of movements and arrangement of them just as facile and purposeless.
Following the contours of a taped electronic score by Ann La Berge, she propelled five women wearing pale, loose shifts though familiar structural gambits--but only in a section danced to recorded breath-rhythms did she connect with something deeper and more essential than arbitrary artsy design. For a moment the dancers weren't merely there to demonstrate Leung Fisher's sensitivity. They were involved in a deep, involving movement process--one, for once, as unpretentious and essential as breathing itself.
Possibly to get us all back to academic terpsichore-as-usual, guest choreographer Elizabeth Keen chose some diverting music by Domenico Scarlatti (neatly played by pianist Linda Love) and set against it the type of festive, fanciful, formulaic modern-dance divertissement that's hard to perform and harder still to remember afterward. The UCLA forces looked pretty silly in their baroque floral adornments, but executed Keen keenly, with Leung Fisher looking far stronger here than in her own work.