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It's Mostly a Matter of Control

WEEKEND REVIEWS / Dance Review

Muscularity and detail hold together a wide-ranging program by Ririe-Woodbury.

November 20, 2000|LEWIS SEGAL | TIMES DANCE CRITIC

The superbly trained modern dancers of Utah's venerable Ririe-Woodbury Company provided an object lesson in avoiding the obvious in a five-part program Friday at El Camino College that, on paper, seemed nothing but an exercise in mindless variety but, in performance, turned out to have hidden depths.

For starters, lots of companies dance swing and tango showpieces nowadays, and Ririe-Woodbury offered both. But no hint of cutesy-poo playacting or in-your-face salesmanship tainted the spectacularly supple execution of "Let's Dance," Doug Varone's deceptively loose-limbed 1996 suite to jazz and pop recordings from the 1940s and '50s.

Varone's style may have looked casual and the dancing effortless, but the cast's lavish displays of muscular control and mastery of detail kept the movement sophistication stratospheric even when the accompaniment descended to such trivialities as "Mambo Italiano." If the body is this fully invested, dance is never shallow.

The same expressive tact and unforced, total engagement in the choreography sustained Stephen Koester's "This Ain't No Tango," an uneven 1999 quintet that belied its title by inventively expanding some of the intricate legwork of traditional Argentine tango into exciting high and wide extensions set to music mostly by tango icon Astor Piazzolla.

Unfortunately, Koester soon abandoned this incisive line of development for a hyper-gymnastic approach that ultimately went nowhere. However, such paragons as Jamie Hall and Brandin Steffensen looked comfortable in every challenge: the lifts, the social-dance passages, the same-sex partnering and the unusual rhythms of the finale.

Essentially a reworking of familiar concepts and strategies, David Rousseve's "Bittersweet Chocolate" (1999) boldly juxtaposed recorded narration, theater games and swooping ensembles danced to the overture to Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," letting the audience tie the elements together.

This time around, Rousseve's text about the need for love involved a snail with one antenna instead of his usual afflicted rat, but the dancers found a wealth of physical and musical nuance in the choreography that Rousseve's own company might well envy.

With Alwin Nikolais' 1953 duet "Noumenon," Ririe-Woodbury revived a once groundbreaking and still disarming essay in dancer dehumanization. Completely concealed in stretch-fabric body bags and bombarded with colored lights, Steffensen and Juan Carlos Claudio used benches as platforms for standing, sitting, tilting and reaching maneuvers that left unanswerable the question of whether they were upside down, on their sides or what.

Just as mysterious, though always unconcealed: Hall, Liberty Valentine and Ai Fujii in Charlotte Boye-Christensen's elliptical "Siesta" (1999), which deliberately undercut the sensual Habanera from Bizet's "Carmen" with forceful, increasingly complex marching formations accented by quick, jagged arm slashes.

No place for subtleties here, but plenty of timing expertise needed as the piece's sculptural configurations and floor gambits grew ever faster.

Besides the company members previously mentioned, the program enlisted the talents of Eric Handman, Andrew Vaca and Nicholas Cendese.

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