Three's Company

Death and the maidens: Susan Tambutti offers a feminist parody on the fate of ballet's unlucky ladies

Death and the maidens: Susan Tambutti offers a feminist parody on the fate of ballet's unlucky ladies

A stiff wind blew along Hennepin Avenue on Saturday night, sending papers swirling above the traffic and threatening to push pedestrians into the paths of passing cars. The abnormally warm mid-November day had undergone a personality change by nightfall, and northerly breezes signaled winter's struggle to arrive despite the best theories of global-warming experts. This encounter with capricious Mother Nature seemed an appropriate way to begin an evening of dance focused on works by three choreographers--Allyson Green, Susana Tambutti, and Cathy Young--who navigate some extreme emotional terrain.

The members of Zenon Dance Company, now in its 17th year as a repertory company, capture the many physical moods of this trio of dancemakers, providing committed performances. The program opens with Green's "Paragraphs on Wind," a haunting work inspired by the ethereal landscape of White Sands, New Mexico. Based in New York, Green has performed in the companies of Doug Varone, Bill Young, and Charles Moulton, to name a few, but in recent years she has honed her own choreographic language, one unique for its spiraling patterns and sense of immediate human connection. Zenon's dancers embrace Green's robust vocabulary, capturing the spare beauty of the desert with an understated approach. Dressed in white, they move across the stage sometimes as nomads, other times as seekers, shapeshifting like sand dunes in a sirocco. Jeff Bartlett's stark lighting creates the feeling of a last frontier, where life still exists, but in a suspended state. In one memorable duet Greg Waletski circles Devin Carey, a vulture sizing up its next meal, or a hallucination brought on by dehydration. Life is vulnerable in Green's weathered environment, and Guy Yarden's textured score for electric violin confirms this fragility and temporality. The result is a sense of tranquility that makes this performance feel like a purifying experience.

Young's jazz-driven "Hidden Heart," set to an intricate musical collaboration by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, provides a dark contrast to Green's radiant vision. A quartet for Christy Coughlin, Christine Maginnis, Carey, and Waletski, the dance is like a game in which intimacy is to be avoided at all costs. The first section has the performers skirting each other's auras, barely touching, feeling for one another with a passing draft or a breath on the back of the neck. Their fear is palpable--think of a massage class among people with germ issues--and even as later sections bring the constantly changing couples into closer proximity, they retain a sense of caged panic. Young's daring with partnering is constantly evident as the dancers soar through some of the most original lifts around--in one, the dancer tosses his partner into the air as if on a planet without gravity. But a sense of incompleteness keeps this work from its potential as jarring transitions between sections grind the emotional momentum to a halt and furtive glances between the performers provide unnecessary theatrics.

Where Green and Young strive for simplicity, Tambutti, with her rambling ode to the demise of five classical ballet icons, "A Certain Death," stuffs the stage with gimmicks and ideas. By the time the house lights come up, the space is littered with debris: costumes in a heap, ballet barres in a tumble, feathers and flowers all around. Tambutti, founder of Nucleodanza in Buenos Aires, has a brilliant sense of drama, and her past collaborations with Zenon have yielded many memorable works. "A Certain Death," however, is problematic, notable more for its mixed messages and self-referential instincts than for its innovative movement. Paying homage to ballet's "victims," including the peasant Giselle, the sultry Carmen, and the sacrificial virgin who must dance until her last breath in The Rite of Spring, the work seems uncertain whether it wants to parody women's roles in ballet or make a rigid feminist argument against their helplessness.

Performed at times in the nude, the choreography encourages further victimization in its choices while at the same time making a sneering comment on the glamorization of death, a point driven home when Wynn Fricke's virgin is re-imagined as a starlet hounded by a hungry pack of paparazzi. To be sure, this is a daring piece of work to the extent that no sacred cow of the ballet world is left untipped. But Tambutti plays fast and loose with her blunt imagery, leaving the viewer wondering whether the elaborate means justify the muddled end.