Few dance artists have practiced the creativity of subtraction as successfully as Anna Sokolow. The power in her works from the mid-20th century stems from a mix of space, absence, anticipation — and the sudden move that changes everything.
This is true not only in the works for which she is best known, the dark portraits of urban isolation (“Rooms”) and Holocaust trauma (“Dreams”). It’s also evident in the plotless but no less pointed,“Lyric Suite,” from 1953, which was given a sterling restaging by the Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company last weekend at Dance Place.
A perfumed legend accompanies the music for this piece, Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite for String Quartet.” Some say the Viennese composer embedded a few of its six movements with musical cues to his mistress. Whether Sokolow channeled this or not, there is no mistaking a searching, unsettled quality in the dancing. Even a duet turns on efforts to connect that seem curiously stilted and formal until its final moments, when the two lovers circle the space like leaping colts.
Nothing is easy here: The music unfolds with clashing impulses, and in a series of quietly desperate solos, the dancers twist and wind themselves up in their own uncertainties.
Yet the shape they give to their struggles is as quietly heroic as it is mysterious. In the andante amoroso movement, Natalia Pinzon gazes overhead, as if searching the ceiling for answers, and begins to raise a leg ever so slowly to the side with her arms outstretched. As you watch that leg lift higher and higher on its unwavering support, an embodiment of sacrifice and surrender, you find you’re holding your breath in awe.
Another picture of surrender, with deliberate dignity: At the end of the allegro misterioso movement, in which Stacey Yvonne Claytor had been spinning wildly with her head flung back, she suddenly lies down, stiff and still, entombed in a square of light. It’s a retreat but not a collapse.
Sokolow controls your attention with her rigorous simplicity, delivering subtle surprises and scuttling expectations in each section. At the end of a solo full of tense, bursting jumps, Graham Pitts comes to rest with his fingers over his face as the music dies and his spotlight fades. In a flash, he flings down his hands and snaps his head to one side, as if he’s going to act on some burning impulse — then blackness. Time has run out. Perhaps that is the point here: The final image in “Lyric Suite” is of four women sliding back and forth in a pendulum rhythm that brings to mind the tolling of a great, sad bell.
For the past couple of years, Singh’s small local company has had two fascinating thrusts: performing the Indian classical dance bharata natyam, as well as revivals of works by Sokolow, a former Martha Graham dancer and a socially conscious choreographer of profound sensitivity. Sokolow died in 2000, and even in the last years of her life, it was rare to see her work performed in Washington. Thanks to Singh’s efforts, and the staging by former Sokolow dancer Lorry May, we’ve seen a good handful of Sokolow pieces on local stages. Although they have all offered a testimonial to the aesthetics of simplicity, none delivers it more pungently than “Lyric Suite.” Newly designed costumes by Judith Hansen aptly underscored the work’s eloquent spareness.
Also on the program were two bharata natyam solos, performed with verve and charm by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, and Singh’s “Vasanth,” a lively telling of a Hindu myth of spring.