"Attack, attack, attack, up, up, and out!" Murray Louis shouts commands to the 60 advanced dance students of American University's Academy for the Performing Arts, as they hurtle in an intricate movement combination across a vast gymnasium floor. "Watch the dynamic - where is the attack? Okay, you've got it fixed in the brain. Now see if you can break it out of the mental process. Right now all I see is the head." He shifts in his chair and beats out the rhythm on the drum again.
Louis is concluding a month's residency at the Au academy, which draws students from all over the country. Tonight (Saturday night if it rains) he'll be dancing with his company in a program of his own recent work at the Sylvan Theater, his first appearance in Washington in several years.
The seasons in between have been busy, productive ones, including a piece commissioned by the Berlin State Opera Ballet; a full evening work. "Cleopatra," for the Royal Danish Ballet; the creation of "Moments" to the Ravel String Quartet, especially for Rudolf Nureyev; and this past spring, acceptance of a prestigious Dance Magazine Award.
The class moves like lightning, a reflection of Louis' own whirlwind pace. Louis seems to operate on an internal clock whose seconds tick off at a rate five times faster than for the average person. It's one of the qualities that makes his dancing so extraordinary - the uncanny rapidity and precision of his muscular control. He moves fast; he also thinks, talks and laughs fast.
His teaching style is full of crackle, but it also leans toward the practical. "Fine, but your torsos are dead," he yells to a group in motion. "Don't forget you're always going to be dancing on a stage where almost no one can see your feet - if you don't make your upper body reflect the movement, you're nowhere."
There's an explosion of bravos and cheers as the class ends - it's the final session. "Save some of that for yourselves," Louis says, "because you were pretty terrfic today," But nothing stops. After a five minute break, they launch into an hour of improvisation studies. Louis gives instructions that sound like a rabbinical litany: "The general premise is taking an idea and pushing it through. With your own speed and sensitivity, you're going to do with it; not only go with it, but fulfill it; not only to fulfill it, bring it to life; not only bring it to life, but understand what the pattern is, where its identity lies."
Tonight's Sylvan Theater program by the Louis company will be composed by "Porcelain Dialogues," a group work form 1974 to a Tchaikovski String Quarter; Louis' recent solo to a potpourri of guitar music, "Deja Vu"; and the jazzy "Glances," created last year to a commissioned score by Dave Brubeck.