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DANCE REVIEW : 'St. Petersburg's' Stark Beauty : Premiere: Nancy McCaleb's engrossing 'Vivat St. Petersburg' leads uneven program at UCSD.


SAN DIEGO — The inscrutable expressionism of contemporary dance sometimes stymies the understanding of those unused to plotless abstractions, particularly people accustomed to ballet. But, for many, the work of Jean Isaacs and Nancy McCaleb frequently is easier to tolerate than much of today's experimental dance. For one thing, it is pretty.

Jean Isaacs' three dances, featured in the first half of a program that opened Thursday at Mandell Weiss Theatre, never strayed from likability. But only one, "Elegy" (1991), might last for posterity. A compressed poem of grief, this duet for two women is thoroughly uniform and unflagging, both in its beauty of movement and its fiercely repressed emotional intensity. "She makes little songs out of her great sorrows," Somerset Maugham said about Dorothy Parker's serious writing. This is Isaacs' little song, a memorial to a colleague.

"Elegy" has yet to get full due from the company's dancers. However, "Petals in the Flesh," a solo Isaacs created last year as a tribute to the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, seemed ideally embodied in the talent of guest artist Bill Cratty. Cratty's execution was fastidious and appropriately void of self-focused bravura. He maintained a disconcerting emotional detachment as he moved through the series of smoothly grafted poses--or fluid friezes, which suggested the presence of a motorized camera shutter and simultaneously suggested the lack of intimacy one experiences when walking through an exhibition of photographic images.

Both of these dances outshined Isaacs' premiere "Human Remains," a disjointed, albeit amusing, sequence performed by six dancers dressed in plaid with folding chairs. Isaacs has presented the gist of this dance at least twice before, "Hoedown at the Boneyard" being the most recent. The costumes, the dance's non-hierarchical composition, and the use of folk steps relate an egalitarianism, an optimism and a fraying rag-doll innocence. But it is not all ankle-slapping fun. Isaacs has adroitly incorporated tiny scenarios of sagging exhaustion, pathos and a haggard futility. Dead spots and jarring breaks between musical segments, however, deflate this work.

McCaleb's visually engrossing premiere, "Vivat St. Petersburg," begged a second viewing, right then, for another dose of well-meshed choreography and highflying theatrics. The seven-part dance-theater work stretched way beyond pretty into an archetypal beauty. It is based on the celebrations in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) that took place last November, when the city restored its pre-Soviet name. But the dance is more a series of stark images--of past political oppression, bread lines, strife, militarism--mixed with a folkish glee, in essence, the emotional impulse compelling such celebrations, a kind of post-devastation liberation.

David Thayer's lighting design, notable throughout the concert, was exceptional for this mixed-media effort, which included, among other elements, projections of paintings, a near-operatic song by dancer Peter McMath, and the haunting sight and sound of bricks being rolled in empty oil drums. Blending folk and electronic instruments, the music by French composers Momo Rossel and Jean-Marc Zelwer was as congruent with the overall effect as every other theatrical device used by McCaleb.

One of the most powerful sections, "Vladimir, Joseph and Karl," featured the male dancers. Cratty performed, at times miraculously, under a black hood, as he was flipped or carried about by two others in business suits. McMath, dressed only in a Russian pea coat and underwear, stood and la-la-laed boomingly, while casting a sinister shadow.

The company has three new male dancers with promise--Ricardo Perlta, John Diaz, and McMath. In physique, these men could hardly be more different, but they showed strong points--attention to nuance and acting ability, for starters. This is promising. As a whole, however, the company lacked precision, and the uneven unison dancing diminished some of "Vivat's" bite.

Also on McCaleb's half of the program was her absurdly funny "Osirian Fields," created in 1987, which is becoming a McCaleb trademark. Black-clad figures in bowler hats mug in a field of giant calla lilies to McCaleb's score of her own overdubbed voice petulantly repeating such phrases as "I don't want to."

It's not an aesthetic prize like "Vivat," but it's a keeper.

'Isaacs, McCaleb & Dancers in Concert" repeats tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the UC San Diego campus. Information: 296-9523.

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