Keigwin + Company at the Kennedy Center


Aaron Carr and Ashley Browne perform “Mattress Suite” at the Kennedy Center. (Christoper Duggan/Courtesy of the Kennedy Center)

Keigwin + Company has cornered the market on laugh-out-loud dance. Consider it LOLdance, worthy of one of those baby-talk captions reserved for cute cats: U can’t hav enuf of deez cuddlie dancerz!

This lighthearted troupe had the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater roaring through its sitcom views of love and other pastimes. In one work, nervous honeymooners tumble around in their underwear on a mattress, which becomes part trampoline, part trap. Anticipated ardor doesn’t go so well; a few flips of the Posturepedic later, the bride is serenely on her own while the groom ends up — wink, wink — in a three-way with his buddies.

“Mattress Suite,” as this piece is called, lays the ironic wit on thick, as slacker casualness and exertions in underpants unspool to operatic excerpts from Verdi and Scarlatti. But although the jokes are obvious, they don’t feel cheap. There’s a smart knowingness to the fun that lifts it above the puerile. And the movement quality is splendid, a play of buttery smoothness and elastic tension.

Larry Keigwin’s straddling of highbrow and lowbrow created a culture clash at Friday’s program, where graying subscribers to a season devoted to the dance establishment (for example, the cool, brainy finale of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company) found themselves shoulder to shoulder with droves of — oh, happy day! — young folks.

The generation gap was at full extension:

This is what you have to do to get young people in the door!” enthused a 20-something man over applause for Keigwin’s “Megalopolis,” which featured songs by the combative pop vocalist M.I.A.

“Superficial,” grumbled an elderly patron after the show, as she squeezed past me to leave.

They’re both right. Cerebral chill in modern dance is so 20th century. New audiences want to see themselves, and their perspectives, onstage — cocked eyebrows, stylistic mash-ups, trash-canning of convention and all. Keigwin gets this. And to his from-the-people worldview he adds that remarkable legato quality of movement, to make playfully elegant dancing without any off-putting airs of stiff formality.

Physical deliciousness is the best part of Keigwin’s work. It’s the aspect that is overlooked in all the recent buzz about this versatile craftsman who so cleverly channels hipster esprit. There’s high demand for his easy appeal and wit: He has worked with the Rockettes, was the first artist-in-residence at the Vail International Dance Festival and in 2010 choreographed scores of runway models in the opening show of New York’s Fashion Week. Broadway is surely not far off.

But as accessible as Keigwin’s work is, it’s not deep. Cute and clever trump substance in every instance. In “Megalopolis,” one dancer’s pelvis churns like Jell-O in a bowl; as he’s wearing skintight silver Spandex, it’s quite a sight to behold. Yet to the steady chiming of Steve Reich’s “Sextet/Six Marimbas,” that vision of individual flair dissolves into the precise movement of troops across the stage. Then M.I.A.’s droning, driving “World Town” and “XR2” replace Reich, and the dancers’ rigidity morphs into a downtown club scene. The piece toggles between this uninhibited display and a militaristic calculus, as the musical accompaniment shifts between minimalism and electronica.

And that’s as far as it goes, juxtaposition of texture and little else. Keigwin returns to similar turf in “Runaway”: dancers marching, dancers going freestyle. Visual jokes abound — a woman flies headfirst onstage as if she’d been shot out of a cannon in the wings; two guys catch her with studied nonchalance. “Love Songs” echoes the desperate view of “Mattress Suite,” using Roy Orbison, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone to fill in the pain that Keigwin can’t access. He gives us pranks but no poignancy, so while there’s a voyeuristic thrill to some of the encounters, there’s little authentic feeling.

Keigwin’s company has been around only since 2003; it’s too soon to tell whether we’ve seen the extent of his talent. As it is, his work is more interesting than that of other dance groups that go for laughs, such as Pilobolus, which struggles to move beyond physical tricks, or David Parsons, who lacks craftsmanship. But while Keigwin has shown us a lot — that dance can be funny, that it can sell to young audiences — he has yet to show us truth.

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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