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Strange attractions
Susan Marshall’s and Stephen Petronio’s postmodern, post-Umbrella dance

Susan Marshall and Stephen Petronio cultivate opposite extremes of second-generation postmodern dance, the theatrical and the physical. So they were great choices for CRASHarts’ efforts to reassemble the Boston dance audience after the demise of Dance Umbrella. The two choreographers and their companies each gave two performances last weekend at the Emerson Majestic.

Marshall is interested in human emotions, the stories that surround intimacy and familial relations. She works with movement from the ground up. Gestures and postures that have specific meanings, like scratching your temple or throwing an arm around a pal’s waist, become the kernel of larger, rhythmic moves that look increasingly like dance vocabulary. The moves can then be subjected to the usual devices of choreography — repetition, reversed directions, tempo changes, and more — but the initial meanings continue to color the developed dance. Recently, Marshall has downplayed the dance element and beefed up her accessibility with dialogue, funky costumes, stagy effects, and allusions to popular culture.

Petronio’s take on human intimacy comes from the outside in. His dance is a technical blowout, an extravaganza of leaps, turns, extensions — the luxurious torso and arms of modern dance, the crackling footwork and openness of ballet, the strength, artifice, and exactitude we expect in the classiest dance forms. His dancers don’t signal emotions, they perform with a passion for movement. They become metaphor in the process.

Petronio’s Strange Attractors is a full-length work whose three parts were choreographed at different times. Although each part uses different costumes, music, and settings, the whole thing has a coherence, even a kind of progression. It begins with the dancers tightly lined up under a harsh downlight. Wearing black bikinis and shredded, shapeless tops that show a lot of skin, Petronio and the eight other dancers reach over and around each other, straining to touch, caress, nuzzle, draw back. They seem unbearably confined, yet turned on by their enforced contact.

The idea of a line-up brings up any number of images associated with dancers and the effects of regimented togetherness. Think A Chorus Line, for instance. It also links back to a favorite early compositional strategy of Trisha Brown, with whom Petronio danced in the ’80s: how many ways can several people make a line, move in a line? But I also thought the Prelude vignette might have been a kind of displaced afterpiece, an aftermath, a scene of depletion and total vulnerability that could result from an hour of the most intense dancing.

Strange Attractors Part I opened with a virtuosic solo by Gerald Casel, who ignited eccentrically shaped turns, leaps, and extensions all along a continuous traveling path. Jimena Paz and Gino Grenek danced almost entirely side by side in a duet of deep, wide pliés, foot and arm placements, and held preparations, as if demonstrating some balletic basics. Then the dance rushed on with an unstoppable stream of inventive combinations of people and steps.

Although the excess of movement could have been confusing, even numbing, Petronio gave us plenty of ways to hang it together — recurring phrase material and groupings of people, momentary line-up patterns, solos and duets that varied the scale. Ana Gonzalez and Ashleigh Leite partnered each other with rough embraces and clung together while flinging apart. A tall woman, Shila Tirabassi, seemed to be working with the idea of resistance, pulling her body as far as she could without falling off her dug-in supporting legs. Near the end, Todd Williams tossed a few Bournonville jumps — advancing toward the audience while opening his arms — into the middle of some brilliant turns and footwork.

All through Part I, the dancers seemed to collect into groups and scatter again — almost inadvertently and without interrupting their onward motion. In Part II, instead of white silk pajamas for the men and black slips for the women, they all wore black bikinis and turtlenecks. The music changed from Michael Nyman’s minimalistic but lyrical strings, flute, and piano to a heavy, metallic-rock score played by UNKLE.

Led by three women — Paz, Tirabassi, and Leite — who punched and karate-kicked into space, all the movement seemed tougher, more deliberate. People stood and watched while others did small variations. People paired off and embraced as if glued together, then ripped apart as if it were as hard for them to achieve a connection as to sever it.

Throughout Parts I and II, Petronio used the line-up to keep renewing the sense of group harmony, maybe as a kind of reassurance amid all the individuality and whirling coincidence. At the very end, three dancers were left standing as the others left, keeping a vestigial sense of order until the dance was ready to go on again.

SUSAN MARSHALL’S ONE AND ONLY YOU begins like a pulpy thriller. The main character, a private eye who’s seen it all, gets a mysterious phone call and heads to an uptown apartment where ... But wait a minute. The detective, the three girl cousins, and their stolid boyfriend Lucky turn out to be characters in a book, which may be the very manuscript the detective (Mark DeChiazza) is supposed to find.

The author, played by the same actor, is having trouble with his wife, Kristen Hollinsworth, and his book isn’t going so well either. He’s nagged by an authority figure/critic/conscience (Isaiah Sheffer) and produces endless crumpled sheets of manuscript and unavailing revisions. (Sheffer is a producer in real life; he runs Symphony Space, the performance emporium on New York’s Upper West Side that commissioned One and Only You.)

The characters talk and mime and dance their way through the coils of a nonexistent plot. Movements repeat, whole scenes are revisited, identifying gestures transfer from one character to another. Bella and Stella, the twin cousins of Anna, the woman with the lost manuscript, move in perfect unison when Hudson, the detective, is questioning them. Anna (Petra van Noort) flails back and forth in distress, and when Hudson grabs her around the waist to stop her, they seem to be dancing a tango. Anna may be pretending she’s lost the manuscript, but it’s she who shoves it under the chair cushions, which glow underneath like computer screens when she lifts them up. The author fantasizes a future TV talk show where he’ll plug his now-finished and famous book, but the host quickly demolishes his self-esteem.

Each scene is riveting, ripe with clues, but in the end we don’t know anything more than we did at the beginning. What’s Anna doing with the manuscript? Is the author in love with one of the twins? Will his wife leave him? What exactly is the author aiming at? What is Susan Marshall aiming at?

The most surprising moment for me was an accident. The author/detective, desperately trying to bring about the story, or end it, pulls up a venetian blind to expose the possible culprits hiding behind it. On Thursday night, the blind didn’t work; one side slid up, the other accordioned apart in a fan of metallic wreckage. The rest of the show steered away from comic violence, and added little to what its predecessors in the detective ballet genre have already accomplished.

Everything about this dance made me think of something else. Fred Astaire’s Girl Hunt ballet in The Bandwagon. Edward Gorey’s furtive sophisticates. The terse, tough heroes of American fiction from Hemingway to Mickey Spillane to Guy Noir, Private Eye. Marshall’s layering of loose ends and deceptive identities reminded me of the literary postmoderns of the late 20th century. Italo Calvino’s wonderful suspense novel of 1979 begins, " If on a winter’s night a traveler ... " and ends with reader and writer, characters and plot, action, memory, and craft all intertwined and even more elusive than they were when we began the book.

Issue Date: February 14-21, 2002
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