Modern dance gets a bad rap for being abstract and obscure, and that’s the first thing that sets contemporary dance company Lucky Plush apart from the pack. The Chicago-based ensemble is known for thoughtful and challenging works that nonetheless manage to include the audience along the way.
The company’s newest performance, “The Better Half,” goes several steps further in deviating from typical modern-dance conventions. Loosely based on the 1944 noir film “Gaslight,” the show includes dialogue, pop references and even something resembling a plot — elements virtually unheard of in most modern-dance pieces.
This was an intentional effort, says founder and artistic director Julia Rhoads. For this performance, she collaborated with Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, a Chicago-based theater director, a union that opened up a plethora of possibilities.
“I think one reason Leslie and I are drawn to working together is that we’re both interested in being accessible to audiences,” Rhoads says. “But while there are definite thematic arcs and through-lines in my work, it’s not usually this narrative.”
Rhoads says that she and Danzig started out thinking they might make a dance-theater piece about “Anna Karenina,” but ultimately found they were more interested in a broader theme: the idea of someone trapped in a role they’d like to shed. That led to “Gaslight,” the tale of a woman whose mendacious husband tries to convince her she’s crazy. Instead of a pure rehash of that story, though, this show is a meditation on the essence of identity.
“The performance starts with five main characters who are handed their character names [while onstage] and grow into their roles,” Rhoads says. “But at a certain point, they grow dissatisfied with those roles.” From there, the piece opens up to other storylines and scripts, including “The Bourne Identity” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.”
If the performance sounds like it could go off the rails or become hard to follow, fret not. Rhoads assures that the piece coheres to one basic theme that isn’t obscured by dialogue or humor.
“It’s ultimately following a central marriage,” she says. “The ultimate takeaway is the resiliency of people in relationship to each other.”
And that’s something understandable by any audience.Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park; Thu. & Fri., $30; 301-405-2787.