Elisa Monte has a secret weapon as a choreographer: a sense of the primal physical resources of modern dance.
Her movement style is spectacularly intense--but not usually because of limb-flailing or facial contortions. No, it is literally visceral: It comes from deep within the solar plexus, the spine, the pelvis, and it gave nearly all her program on Tuesday at UC Riverside an elemental authenticity.
Now this, of course, is what modern dance was created to do--and one might assume that Monte simply developed concepts she learned while dancing in Martha Graham's company from 1974 to 1982. However the erosion of Graham technique in that period (and since) has left the parent company in the shadow of its offshoot.
Indeed, Monte and her nine dancers are eloquent in a movement language that most of their contemporaries have forgotten. No matter what her theme, or level of invention, they look superbly centered, energized from within, full of feeling.
Like many American choreographers in the '80s, Monte tries to formalize the apocalyptic emotionalism of European dance-theater with structures adopted from process-oriented New York post-modernism. This can seem pointless--like trying to graph a whirlwind.
But in "Audentity" (1987) and "Dreamtime" (1986), the constraints of her spatial designs and rigid sequencing gambits help heighten the dynamism of a dance vocabulary exploiting constant changes of level, direction, speed and scale.
Both pieces feature environmental lighting designs by Craig Miller and scores that layer slow (often brooding) melodies on a powerful rhythmic base. Set to music by Klaus Schulze, "Audentity" begins with the majestic Linda Hoemar dancing to the theme and her colleagues to the driving pulse: a statement of counterpoint and a central female presence that the work develops and varies intelligently.
In "Dreamtime," forceful music by David van Tieghem and prismatic lighting (through smoke) creates a high-stakes atmosphere, with tiny Danita Ridout sharply, urgently planting movement motifs as if revealing ancient tribal truths for the last time. Finger shimmies, shoulder twitches and back-kicks soon sweep through the corps members and they end in a line--not the bright, cool path to the future of "Audentity" but a serpentine fusion, hot and powerful.
"Dextra Dei" (1989) also explores this idea of group unity, with four men lifting one another through gymnastic, task-oriented sequences in which shared weight comes to symbolize trust and responsibility.
However, with its screaming-meemie score by Tibor Szemzo and spasms of florid playacting, this curiously Pilobolean piece drifts dangerously close at times to dogged neo-Expressionist Eurotrash. Elsewhere, Monte establishes a dramatic context , but leaves her exact purposes tantalizingly enigmatic. Here she grows gesturally explicit--and tiresome.
The duet "Treading" (1979) offers the only sample of Monte's own dancing and that of her husband, David Brown. Each moves through the erotic body-sculpture with faultless control and concentration, every test of balance and note of the propulsive Steve Reich score in their bones by now.
"Treading" launched Monte's career as a choreographer and it holds all the components of her style: the reliance on New Age gamelan music and formal movement patterning, the enforcement on gender-specific vocabularies and a polished, sculptural look, even the interest in gymnastics and dance-drama.
Most of all, however, it glories in the production of movement from deep within the body: the ability to make even a simple hip-rotation resonant.
Monte and Brown have been widely celebrated for their sexual daring--depicting their conjugal intimacies in stylized dance-interplay. But they may well be undervalued for a more significant achievement: restoring to desensitized and cerebral contemporary dance its profound kinetic birthright.