THE APPEARANCE of Jan Van Dyke and her dance troupe at Lisner Auditorium next Saturday evening promises to have more than passing significance. Assuredly, for Van Dyke, who has been a leading presence in Washington dance for more than a decade, it will mean a new level of exposure and recognition. But it's also a sign of how much the dance picture has changed here - mostly in a positive way - in 10 years.
Jan Van Dyke & Dancers will become just the second local troupe (the first was the D.C. Dance Repertory Company) the Washington Performing Arts Society has thus far presented on its annual modern dance subscription series, and the first to offer a program wholly choreographed by a single, native-born choreographer. What this means is that WPAS has deemed Van Dyke ready-in terms of professional achievement and audience appeal - to be grouped with such established national companies as those of - Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey and Alwin Nikolais.
It's not exactly an endorsement of quality - the public has the last word in this respect - but it is certainly an indication of confidence. And if the fact of the engagement is a tribute to Van Dyke's ability and effort, it's also a clear sign of the growing receptivity to modern dance throughout the metropolitan area.
Van Dyke herself has played a key partin fostering that receptivity. As a dancer, teacher, company director, entrepreueur and writer, she has been progressively active at the vortex of the local dance scene. The Lisner program, though, will focus primarily on her creative output. She has been choreographing since 1965, and her dance compositions to date total more than 30. The Lisner evening will illustrate the drift of her dance invention over the past half decade, in a sampler of four works dating from 1973 to the present.
Van Dyke's dances usually have no well-defined plot, but tend to be filled with dramatically suggestive images or gestures. She designs her choreography this way from a conviction tha the imagination of an audience deserves some elbow room. "I don't own a TV set," she says, "mainly because so much of what one sees on screen leads the audience by the nose. The shows don't leave anything to me as a viewer. Not just TV, but a lot of movies, and for that matter, dance and ballet, tell us what we should see and feel.
"What I'm trying to do is to make dances that encourage an audience to create its own experience. The trouble, of course, is that many people expect, and perhaps want, to be led. So some people are put off by my works, as soon as they see I'm not going to do that for them, that they're on their own. I'm happiest when people come up to me after a performance and tell me what they saw in my work - it may or may not be what was in my own mind, but that strikes me as irrelevant."
She dates the present phase of her work from "Waltz," the earliest piece on the Lisner program, done as a solo for herself in 1973 to the music of Strauss' "Blue Danube" waltz. Short, mysterious, evocative, it's one of her finest inspirations.
"Since 1974, I've mainly been doing long, abstract pieces that seem to start from imagery I carry around in my mind. It's not so much dance imagery - the movement is usually the last thing I get to. It's more a matter of visual images, or weird juxapositions. 'Waltz' was the first piece that went in that direction. I saw the movie '2001' three times and was very taken with it, but it wasn't till afterward I realized the connection to my work.
"I was just listening to the "Blue Danube" waltz one day and sort of daydreaming, thinking what beautiful music for dancing it is. I went to the studio and did everything that music makes you want to do. The more I did, the more I realized that this was just what I wanted to fight against in my choreography - being led by the music. So I went home and just led it sit for awhile, and finally honed the movement down to one waltz phrase - if you danced it in normall tempo it would just last a second. I slowed it down, and slowed it down, to the point where it became exceedingly difficult to execute; I still find it tough. I was terrified to show it to anyone, for fear I was off on some crazy tangent no one would get. But then I got some private encouragement from a dancer friend, and the first public performance drew a really good response. From then on, I began to trust myself more, to trust to my instincts. I also realized that I enjoy working with the unexpected."
Also on the program is "Big Show," a companion piece to "Waltz," and it's exact opposite," Van Dyke says - jazzy and gaudy where "Wlatz" is languid and subtle."Ceremony II (with roses)," which uses music by the Rolling Stones and Johann Pachelbel, is an extended group work danced by the entire Van Dyke ensemble of six women. "It came at a time when I was seriously questioning what it meant to be a dancer, so it deals with my own experience as a student, teacher, and performer - with youthful dreams of glory, and the realities that intrude upon the dream," she explains.
The most recent work, which will have been premiered in Philadelphia this month, is called "The Story of Twilight, the deep glow legend of crystal, the tale of fantastic enchantment, the evensong of shimmering dawn." "It's not as strongly autobiographical as 'Ceremony,' and it's got more of a linear story - a fairy tale, really, of my own devising. I consider it sort of the end of a particular creative period for me."
Van Dyke spent a number of years in New York before establishing the Dance Project here as an umbrella for her teaching, performing and creative activities. She made two discoveries in the Big Apple: One was that she preferred living in Washington, and the other was that "aside from the giants, like Graham and Cunningham, there are a lot of choreographers in New York who are no better or worse than those in Washington; they've just got more chances to perform, more bookings, more grants, more publicity."
The recent local flowering, however, has made her feel sanguine about the future of dance in Washington . "There are still pressing needs, of course, for more money, more performing spaces, more attention from local foudations and the National Endowment for the Arts. But we've got many more able dancers now than 10 years ago, and I see the beginnings of a real community of artists here, not just dancers and choreographers but from other fields as well, who are supportive of each other's work. I'm optimistic, on all counts."