Keigwin and Co. Debut 'Fly' and 'Water, Fire, Earth, Air' at Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

Once you dress dancers up as flight attendants, what else are they going to do but a tart little riff on a pre-flight safety demo? And because New York-based choreographer Larry Keigwin is a tad wacko and very, very witty, he slips a few hilariously naughty gestures into the wordless hand-dance of seatbelt-buckling and oxygen-mask-fastening that his perky navy-suited cast delivers in "Fly," part of Keigwin and Company's sparkling debut at the Kennedy Center on Thursday night.

If the airline industry borrowed from this routine -- puckishly tsk-tsking passengers to keep their hands off their seatmates, etc. -- folks might actually roll in the aisles. Er, aisle.

As it was, the Terrace Theater was a pretty rollicking place, what with the chuckles and outright belly laughs that met Keigwin's program. "Fly," which was just one part of his evening-length work "Elements: Water, Fire, Earth, Air," reminded me of the body cues dissected so archly in Mitchell Rose's "Learn to Speak Body: Tape 5," a gem of a video on YouTube (worth checking out, so you know when someone's telegraphing "my boom-boom is unavailable!"). It is, like Keigwin's work, an unusual thing: funny dance.

It's funny how unfunny concert dance is, when you think about it. Isn't the slapstick of Charlie Chaplin and his rubbery brethren just a whisker-width away from dancing? But high-minded seriousness is embedded in modern dance's DNA -- the art form got its start reclaiming good music and grand themes from what its founders saw as ballet's decadence and fairy-tale fixation. Modern dance can be many things, but it is commonly perceived to be a sober, cerebral, deadly earnest, at times abstruse form of expression -- and it gets that rap for a reason. It often is those things. But funny? No one goes to a dance concert expecting it be like Wanda Sykes.

There are choreographers who can do comedy -- Paul Taylor, certainly ("Offenbach Overtures," "Funny Papers," among others), and Mark Morris, though more in his early years than lately. Even Martha Graham could go for a laugh now and then. But Keigwin's approach in "Elements" is of another order: It's cheeky and silly from end to end; every section has a joke. Where Morris and Taylor share a subtle, sly wit, Keigwin is a cut-up, and he and his dancers play directly to the audience.

The "Water" section toys with our obsession with bottled water as a curative and a fashion accessory; it's also a dissertation on every way you can wear a white hotel-issue towel (the spot-on costumes, gags by themselves, are by Liz Prince). Why do the otherwise barefoot dancers -- men included -- wear heels with their turbans and bath sheets at the end of this segment? Because they look deliciously absurd that way, that's why!

Don't look for too much internal logic here. Keigwin is at his best when he toys with little soup├žons of associations; for instance, "Fire" ends with three dancers in bright, feathery skin suits that could have walked out of a Mardi Gras parade gyrating to Unk's rap single "Walk It Out" -- an offbeat, imaginative choice that in execution proved to be just as combustible and mesmerizing as the element it represented.

If the humor hit home every time, the few pure-dance moments were less impressive. Liz Riga's solo to the song "Stormy Weather," part of the "Earth" package, was the best of these, a version of the I've-been-jilted blues in which Riga contrasted the full-sail, expansive use of her body with evident internal pain. Ensemble sections sans jokes were unremarkable time-fillers. Here's where Keigwin needs to sharpen his skills.

He has plenty of good examples close at hand; before forming his own troupe in 2003, he danced with Mark Dendy, Doug Varone and John Jasperse, eminently respectable figures all. And Keigwin's company is still in its infancy. But with his undeniable comic success, I wouldn't be surprised if he starts getting commissions from ballet companies soon. Funny ballets are even rarer than funny modern-dance pieces. Once Keigwin's work takes off in the larger dance world, he could become quite busy. This prompts the question: Could that wit tighten up from overuse? Comic burnout seems to be an occupational hazard of the humorous; just ask Steve Martin or Jim Carrey, whose ventures into more serious material have left many fans wishing they'd stuck with their shtick.

But for now, funny is working for Keigwin, and for us. Delighted murmurings of "I never thought I'd come to a modern dance performance and laugh" rippled around me in the theater. I had been thinking the same thing. Now wouldn't it be a gas if, in modern dance at least, funny became the new angst.

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