SAN DIEGO — What's so funny about a modern dance concert?
Everything, when the performers are a pair of incurable zanies like Mitchell Rose and Diane Epstein. The madcap duo will make their San Diego debut as part of Three's Company's Lo-tec series today and Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
"Comedy is the underlying element in everything we do," said Epstein. "A lot of modern dance turns people off. They can't follow what's going on. But we're very accessible. We do comedy. If you see any angst, it's just a juxtaposition (of humor). When I perform with Mitchell, I feel like I'm in a Woody Allen movie."
Critics agree. They see shades of Allen in the pair's deadpan delivery and off-the-wall sense of humor. But Rose's brand of choreography has been linked to the traditions of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Ernie Kovacs, Mel Brooks, Groucho Marx and even Steve Martin.
"None of those comedians have had a direct impact on my work," said Rose. "But I'm a student of comedy. I've observed the great comic masters, and sometimes people see things that just ring a bell for them and they say, 'It's like Groucho Marx, or Chaplin.' All those elements are there."
"We're the only modern dance company that concentrates on comedy," Epstein said. "Sometimes it's just the movement which is funny. Sometimes it's the concept. And sometimes we do parody. We'll be doing a parody of a tap dance during our performances at Three's Company."
Rose and Epstein teamed up about two years ago, but they're still unknown in California.
"We decided to come to San Diego because of my local connection," Epstein said. "I come to San Diego frequently to see my relatives (her mother lives in La Jolla), and I thought: Why don't we perform here?"
During their two-night stand at the Three's Company studio in Hillcrest, Rose and Epstein will offer a broad sampling of their wares in a 10-piece program of choreographed tidbits.
"Usually, you see three 20-minute pieces on a program," said Rose. "But we do about 10 or 15 shorter pieces. Some are only about a minute long, but they're all different. We'll be doing satire, tap, opera, mime and a multimedia work. We also have a volunteer piece which is like a 'Simon says.' We get seven people from the audience to come up and participate. I give them Walkman recorders, and when I say 'go,' they start moving around (to the tune of their recorded instructions)."
Among the works is a solo that Epstein choreographed for herself. "Almozt Art" was her first crack at choreography, and as Rose described the Twyla Tharp-style dance, it's a perfect vehicle for Epstein's virtuosity.
"I created the dance a year ago, but choreography is a new thing for me," Epstein said. "I've always been afraid of it."
Also slated is "Opera Nuova," a "nerd modern dance" lip-synced to excerpts from Verdi's "Il Trovatore," and "A Little Leeway," a duet that mixes ballroom and cabaret-style jazz idioms to a medley of songs by Peggy Lee.
Humor is the name of the game for this dancing duo. But, as Rose explained, "People don't know how to describe us. We've had five or six reviews that start off by saying, 'Was it dance? Was it comedy? Was it mime? Was it performance art? Who cares? It was funny.' "