Remain in Light

The quicker picker-upper: Zenon Dance Company's Greg Waletski and Wynn Fricke
Fall Concert
Zenon Dance Company

Oh, the woes of a repertory dance company. Guest choreographers blitz in, do the work, and speed away before the premiere. Dancers perennially struggle to learn new ways of moving and new strategies for dealing with clashing personalities. Artistic directors battle to keep the delicate machine greased and running, all the while trying to forge an identity out of small pieces. The whole enterprise, in fact, resembles a publishing house devoted exclusively to translations: In maintaining versatility and latitude at all costs, it risks inadequacy.

Zenon Dance Company, presenting its 16th season's work in a three-week run in the Dance Alliance's Turnstyle series, is one of those repertory groups whose risk-taking is so habitual we've come to see it as ordinary. Over the past several years, Linda Andrews, Zenon's artistic director, has imported some of the most unique and talented choreographers on the contemporary scene: Doug Varone, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman, Bill Young, Joe Goode, Will Swanson, Susana Tambutti. To Andrews's greater credit, she sniffed them out in many cases before the buzz hit, before the names themselves became more important than the work. And in ultimate tribute to Andrews, most of the above choreographers have been back at least once, helping to mold the Twin Cities into the lone Midwestern outpost of good contemporary dance.

With one new piece and three old works on the program, Zenon's fall show is a bit of a rerun, although live performance is by definition mutable. Among the three oldies, Bebe Miller's "Field," created last year, is the standout. Miller is one of the most original movement-makers to come out of New York in the last 20 years and perhaps the only postmodern choreographer capable of rendering abstraction thick with humanity. "Field" is set to John Adams's "Christian Zeal and Activity," a dreamy sampling of an evangelical preacher's sermon, and the dance is, like the voice of the preacher, voracious. Miller's movement is huge and dense. It's also loud (literally) and irreverent and difficult and weird--elements that ought to turn the experience of watching it into an open-eyed nightmare. Instead, it's thrilling. The eight dancers move mostly in couples across the broad, wing-free stage of Studio 6A, but there is a sense of unintended group unity, like a school playground at recess. One lone figure (Christine Maginnis) periodically stops the fretful activity by jumping out into a seeming void. She is caught by seven gentle pairs of hands that lower her down safely as she collects herself again. It's lovely, all this strange commotion.

Minutes after "Field" has ended, the dancers are back onstage in early-'50s getup, grooving on the dance floor of a late-night juke joint. Cathy Young's "Fat Boy's Juke Joint" is a jazz showstopper with enough attitude to pour over the three modern pieces on the program. The music reflects Young's intensive approach to the work: The five R&B songs that the dance is set to are all late-'40s/early-'50s black radio station hits, which have only recently seen wide release. "Juke Joint" is based on vernacular social dances of the pre-rock 'n' roll era (the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug, etc.) and it is casually theatrical in ways that recall a period movie. It looks like chaos--couples blasting up onto tables and chairs, darting quick-footed in all directions--but there isn't an improvised eighth-note in it. Young knows how to make it all look like free-form fun and it's hard to stay strapped to one's seat. To think that 40 years ago "vernacular" meant the speedy, superathletic Lindy Hop...and today it means balancing a beer in one hand and stepping side to side.

Now a brief plea for the survival of contemporary dance as an audience-attended art form: please, light your dances so we can see them. "air water scissors clay," the new piece by Will Swanson, and "AngelCrash," Bill Young's 1996 duet, both signal that under-lighting is an endemic problem in the dance world. There is such a thing as "mood" in dance, and I hurry to add that with a nonverbal performance form, mood is key. But mood is one thing, and depressingly dim sidelight with no hint of illumination on performers' faces, quite another. Throughout Swanson's 20-odd-minute septet, I could barely make out the dancers' expressions, and in "AngelCrash," an otherwise absorbing duet for Megan Flood and Greg Waletski, I saw more black void than humanity. This is serious, folks: Dance is meant to be seen, not merely detected.

Zenon's Fall Concert continues through November 28 at Studio 6A of the Hennepin Center for the Arts; 338-1101.

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