Deborah Riley's Anniversary Presents

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

Choreographer Deborah Riley doesn't do irony, so you can take her at her word. And her message was clear in the three works performed by Deborah Riley Dance Projects on its well-crafted 20th anniversary tribute program Saturday at Dance Place: Find yourself a comfortable spot, and stick with it. Be strong, but don't overpower. And never forget who your friends are.

Those themes might sound simplistic, but simplicity and earnest, optimistic innocence are a good part of Riley's enduring appeal as a choreographer. Her works are not puzzles to solve. They are unfailingly straightforward, composed of the clean lines and uncluttered spacing she inherited from her years dancing with Douglas Dunn, the highly regarded disciple of Merce Cunningham. It's that openness and air, along with a prevailing serenity, that sets her work apart on the local scene.

"Steel Angel," "Old Cronies" and a work-in-progress called "Place" offered a useful snapshot of Riley's long career, which as of recently includes her role as co-director of Dance Place with founder Carla Perlo. "Steel Angel" was the first work she created here, after arriving from New York to teach and answer phones in the cramped Adams Morgan walk-up that was Dance Place, before the black-box theater and studio space moved to its current Brookland address.

"Steel Angel's" images of strength -- the clenched fists and curled biceps -- may look cliched, but there is something compelling about this piece beyond any particular gesture or moment. It's not the predictable view of grandeur and personal specialness; in a self-possessed solo (danced with velvety calm by Nicole YM McClam) and an ensemble section, this work unspools an unabashed revelation -- that you don't lose power in sharing it.

"Old Cronies," from 2000, is one of Riley's most conceptually complete works, and its core idea, the friendship of women, was underscored in a synergy of execution, music and decor. Kim Power's set design -- long strips of brightly patterned fabric stretched on vertical wooden frames, so they resembled pillars -- allowed the space to be swiftly reshaped, so it was now a circle for a tightly focused solo, now a solid background of color.

Riley, long-limbed and reed-slender, performed a gently declamatory solo that reaffirmed what makes her one of the most watchable of dancers. With her exquisitely linear physique, supple in her late fifties, she fills the space from corner to corner, yet you never see a whisper of effort. Nor is there anything tentative in her dancing; the focus is clear.

Riley's idiosyncratic musicality is unusual and fascinating; I can't think of another local choreographer whose approach is as sophisticated. The dancing carries on in the same time frame as the music, and with a similar weight and feeling, but only occasionally and very briefly do the steps directly correspond to musical rhythms. Dancing to a waltz, Riley never waltzes, though there was at times a roundness and circularity to her movements, punctuated by dashes and darts of a different sort.

Saturday's sold-out performance reunited former Riley dancers, and many of them were worked into the program. This didn't always serve the works; "Old Cronies" was interrupted several times for well-intentioned but saccharine affirmations addressed by Riley alumni to the rest of us: "You are special and unique," and the confusing: "Someone you don't even know exists loves you." The desire to weave in others was better realized in "Place," in which several of her former dancers spoke on video about their favorite spots at Dance Place -- the carpeted sound booth, the cozy dressing room -- and also about metaphysical space, such as the building's atmosphere, and the personal ties forged there.

This program centered on noncontroversial themes, but Riley hasn't always stuck to upbeat subjects in her choreography. Over her years as a teacher and mentor, as well as a company director, she has addressed homeless women as well as sexual abuse, exposing its prevalence -- which she says was her "mission" for a time -- back in the early '90s. Always, though, she has focused on the salvation offered by the collective. It's an honest impulse: In a recent interview, Riley said she owes her long career to the supportive "family" of dancers here.

"A dancer doesn't want to be in a community where they feel their voice isn't being heard," she said. "Voices are heard in this community." We've been fortunate, and are fortunate still, that hers is one of them.

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