At Dance Place show, Karen Reedy’s company offers a lesson in generosity

Generally speaking, dancers are generous people. Their art is inherently collaborative, they grow up wanting to please and they are, necessarily, expressive in an outgoing and physical way. For all of these reasons, dancers lean toward warmth and acceptance. You can find these traits in most any dance concert, but they were especially pronounced in Karen Reedy Dance’s program over the weekend at Dance Place in Northeast Washington.

Reedy grew up here, was a standout member of the local troupe Eric Hampton Dance — which, in its brief existence in the 1990s, was one of the area’s artistic jewels — then performed in New York with Mark Morris and Robert Battle. She returned to Alexandria a few years ago and launched her own group. As a choreographer, Reedy is drawn to warm tones — the rounded, slippery-smooth quality that characterized her own dancing. On Saturday, this was evident in her strongest works: “In Memory,” a gentle duet with more separation than togetherness, danced by Melissa Greco Liu and Prentice Whitlow, and the lighthearted “Variations,” for five women, with pianist Laurie Vivona Bunn performing Mozart’s Variations in D.

What was most distinctive about Reedy’s program, however, was the fact that it included two other choreographers, an act of generosity as rare as it was rewarding. It was also smart. The downfall of many single-choreographer companies is that if you don’t love that chor­eog­rapher’s style, you may not want to return after intermission. But in programming Hampton’s masterly 1996 heartbreaker “Half a Life” right before the break, Reedy had us hungry for more.

Facing his 50th birthday, Hampton created “Half a Life” as a bittersweet portrait of lost youth. Did he have any inkling then that his time was speeding to an end more quickly than any of us could have imagined? Not long afterward, he was given a diagnosis of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — and died in 2001, at 54.

Hampton was an important teacher and mentor: Among the members of his company were Dana Tai Soon Burgess, Lucy Bow­en McCauley and Tony Powell, who, like Reedy, have all followed in Hampton’s dancemaking footsteps. I knew him, as so many in Washington’s dance scene did, as a friend. But as large and giving a spirit as he had, what looms even sharper in memory are his dances, elegant works of grace and perfect timing. “Half a Life,” a small, quiet dance for three, accompanied by three Mahler songs, is as startling and deeply moving now as it was 15 years ago.

Credit the knowing oversight of Harriet Moncure Williams, who safeguards Hampton’s chor­eog­raphy; Reedy’s staging (she danced in it while the choreographer was alive); and the sensitivity of the cast: Bruno Augusto as the Artist, Whitlow as the Artist as a Young Man and Kathryn Pilkington as the Muse. At its premiere I saw longed-for romance in this work, with the Muse wrapped around the Young Man in an arcing coil; they were the memory of love, lost to the Artist. Now, I think that Hampton, as an older choreographer, was noting how much more easily inspiration came to him in his youth. The dance’s poignancy works on several levels, and the effortless, liquid momentum that nudges it forward creates the kind of spell you experience only in great art. I hope Reedy revives more of Hampton’s works.

The other guest choreographer on Reedy’s program was Karla Wolfangle, a former dancer with Paul Taylor and Lar Lubovitch. Her “Madame X,” a solo danced by Constance Dinapoli on a stage ringed with candlelight, was a spot-on portrait of the forceful personality behind the model for the John Singer Sargent painting. As confident as it was, I think it was also a portrait of its maker, and I was glad to glimpse her work.

How enlarging it was to see a variety of work. It’s one thing for a dancer to be bighearted; it’s almost a survival instinct. But generosity is fitting for a choreographer, too. Of course, the real payoff is for the audience members. And this one says thanks.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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