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A dancer who made life’s transience last

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The recession-choked early 1990s were no picnic for the arts. But there was a bright spot in Washington: the work of Eric Hampton.

The dances he created for his company, Eric Hampton Dance, had everything you need in dark times, or in life in general: humor, poetry, human warmth. Moments that trapped a fleeting sensation and kept it aglow in your mind like a candle flame.

In a tribute this weekend at Dance Place to the much-loved man who died in 2001, those qualities felt just as fresh as when I saw the works’ premieres 15 or 20 years ago and became an instant and devoted supporter. It was true then and remains so now that Hampton’s work belongs on the same stages as those of the dance greats.

It was always Hampton’s strength to find gold in the shadows. In 1991, as other arts organizations were cutting back, Hampton brought to light an entirely new one. His small but fiercely talented ensemble of the area’s most interesting dancers performed works unlike any others. Trained at Juilliard by such masters as Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow and Jose Limon, Hampton devised a fluent dance language that mixed the noble line and elasticity of ballet with the firm, earthy thrust of folk dancing.

Of course, Hampton’s freewheeling notion of folk steps might show us a coquette scraping something off the bottom of her shoe, or smacking her partner full in the chest for studiously ignoring her. Both of these split-second flashes of wit are in the raucous, endlessly inventive “Fon Fon Odeon,” which members of DanceSmith, the company run by former Hampton dancer Natalie Moffett Smith, performed sublimely this weekend.

The Dance Place program, titled “Eric Hampton . . . With Us, Again,” underscored the timelessness of his work. To this day Hampton's passions, regrets and fears, whispered through his dances, feel as familiar as our own.

Yet Hampton’s courage (or was it unquenchable artistic fire?) still astounds those of us who witnessed it, and borders on the superhuman. As amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (the dread Lou Gehrig’s disease) gradually shut down his outer functioning, he still managed to bring forth a creative, nurturing inner life. He continued to teach at Maryland Youth Ballet, oversee his company’s rehearsals and choreograph for student recitals and for his troupe.

His last piece for his company, titled “By the Light . . .” and created when he could only whisper commands to the dancers in his apartment, is an extraordinary work of art. Can any other human artifact bring us closer to the abyss than this? Here is what it feels like to die, he tells us in this dark, frightening 1998 duet — to die too soon and full of life inside.

Hampton’s affinity for Beethoven was established years earlier (witness his “Beethoven Bits,” from 1993, buoyantly rendered this weekend by Lucy Bowen McCauley, Alison Crosby and Smith). In “By the Light . . .” he closed the circle with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” in kinship with the deafened composer’s torment. (And this was a decade before Moises Kaufman explored a similar circumstance in his play “33 Variations.”) Coached by original cast member Karen Bernstein, dancers Natalia Pinzon and Jamal Ari Black of Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh gave a searing portrait of wrecked beauty, violence and terrifying solitude, told with a sharp economy of gestures and the perfect interplay of light and shadow.

There is so much depth to Hampton’s works that new aspects surface with every viewing. As Karen Reedy Dance performed his “Half a Life,” I was struck by the influence of Antony Tudor, the ballet choreographer of penetrating understatement (“Jardin aux Lilas,” “Pillar of Fire”) whom Hampton considered his mentor. You see Tudor’s traces in “Half a Life” as a woman is snatched from the air in mid-jump, in the atmospheric tension, in the dance phrases that lag gently behind the music. Hampton built on Tudor’s exceedingly difficult-to-achieve example as few others have done.

It was a special joy to watch two accomplished and appealing students from the Maryland Youth Ballet, Anna Beeman and Sam Rodriguez, assay Hampton’s “Two for Two,” a devilishly slippery pas de deux, full of surprises; the young dancers gave it just the right light touch.

This tribute weekend was a labor of love by so many loyal to Hampton, among them Harriet Moncure Fellows, who curated the program with Andrea Nash, and costume designer Judy Hansen, whose elegant creations enhanced both the architecture and the softer contours of Hampton’s work. Countless others in the dance community turned out to celebrate his art. With the launch of the Eric Hampton Dance Foundation, which aims to license his works to companies and schools, here’s hoping these marvels now will be shared with the world.

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