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Los Angeles Festival : Movement But Less Metaphor

September 08, 1987|CRAIG BROMBERG

For some choreographers, the essence of dance is metaphor. Take metaphor away from dance, they say, and you take away its poetry.

Other choreographers disagree. In this crowd, metaphor is the culprit that has led to dance being taken hostage by traditional theater. These choreographers proclaim their loyalty to movement taken on its own terms. Unabashed physicality is the name of their game.

Susan Marshall & Company is undoubtedly one of those in the latter camp, and yet Marshall's dances, which will be seen during the Los Angeles Festival at the Japan America Theater on Wednesday and Thursday, still manage to retain the semblance of old theater.

Indeed, the New York-based Marshall, 28, is one of the few American choreographers who have escaped from the trivialities of metaphor without sacrificing dramatic dance values.

"When you're working with dance, there's always going to be metaphor," says the dark-eyed choreographer. "The trick to letting the movement speak for itself is in creating a narrative or an emotional contour that's based on the movement itself. It's crucial that it's not meant to be representative of something else.

"What I'm trying to use are movements that are very understandable but not as exaggerated as movements we're familiar with theatrically."

Marshall uses "Trio in Four Parts," a work on the L.A. program, as an example. "I specifically wanted to define the characters through their movement," she says, "and not just metaphorically. For example, if one said, 'The dancers all flounder around in this piece,' it wouldn't be because they were dancing like they were floundering around, but because they actually were floundering around--in this highly structured, choreographed way."

Marshall's dances are loaded with movements taken from everyday life and her most recent works have been situated increasingly in vernacular situations such as ballrooms ("Arena") or living-rooms (as in her new "Companion Pieces," which portrays couples in real-time necking sessions). However, she cautions that her use of everyday movement is not meant as nostalgia for the early post-modern pioneers' use of so-called pedestrian movement--dance grabbed straight from the street.

Although she recognizes the names and achievements of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer, Marshall is the first to admit that she has seen little of their work.

Indeed, as a native of Hershey, Pa., and a graduate of New York's famed Juilliard School, Marshall's dance training does little to explain the clear-cut psychological resonances that pervade her work.

"When I was at Juilliard," she says, "I always wanted to figure out how to work with dramatics, but it took me a long time to do it. It took a long time to figure out how not to have dramatic meaning because once you got dramatic meaning it became literal and bogged down and I wouldn't know how to move the dancers around. I knew it was wrong."

Although Marshall says there was no breakthrough piece, she agrees that in late 1982 something seemed to click with a noisy, rather violent dance called "Fault Line."

"A lot of times, the things I've done aren't because I feel something so much but because I think it will work in dance, and this kind of violence needed no translation. It wasn't directly violent but it still read as violation.

"I kept trying to add things to this very small range of violent movements, but everything I tried to put in to change its direction or its mood just didn't seem to fit. And that's when I realized that I could have a truly small vocabulary and build it in terms of the thematics of each piece."

Marshall has worked ever since to build up a small vocabulary of discrete physical gestures that she changes from dance to dance.

"One little rule I have," she says, . . . "is that I think each dance should have its own movement vocabulary defining only those characters in that one piece. You can't use them interchangeably."

While this rule mandates many arduous hours in the studio, Marshall says she's used to it by now. "It's a natural thing, for me," she says. "Because I saw dance before I even started dancing, I've always interpreted dance in human terms, not dance terms."

"I just can't get around the fact that there's men and women moving around, actually doing things to one another with their bodies on stage. It's not pretend, it's real, and you can't get around that. I don't even know why you'd want to."

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