Beth Burkhardt has been a familiar figure on the dance scene hereabouts for more than a decade and a half, as a dancer, teacher, costume designer and choreographer. Nevertheless, it has taken the new Washington Dance Series under the auspices of the Washington Project for the Arts to give her a fullfledged showcase -- it is opportunities of just this kind that the new series aims to provide. Burkhardt and her Dance Improvisation Group (D.I.G.) will be "in residence" at WPA all this coming week to launch the series, offering not only six performances between Tuesday and Sunday, but also a number of workshops and a free lecture.
It seemed clear from last night's preview that Burkhardt's most potent asset is her own magnetism and intensity as a performer. Her face, so striking in its prominent bony structure, can be deadpan or mobile, but it's always alive and radiant. There's a solid rootedness to her movement, and a sense of control that gives the smallest displacement of weight or position its own nuance. Everything she does looks deliberate and exact in detail, yet resilient and free in the large.
The clarity of Burkhardt's dancing, however, isn't generally carried over into her choreography, which can be so conceptually opaque as to seem impenetrable. The one exception last night was the two-part "Bird Watch," framed the program. The first part was Burkhardt solo at the start of the evening that had her humorously waddling, flapping, lolling, squeaking, "swimming" and otherwise going through a repertory of penguin mimicry that was almost too explicit. Part two, at the close of the program, brought the other six dancers of the group into the routine, expanding it with some new items like belly-rocking. The whole thing has a sense of affectionate observation about it that keeps it engaageingly fresh.
Burkhardt often likes to collaborate with artists working in other media, and for "Windows -- Unguarded Momentss" Robert Martin provided wispy harmonica music and sculptor Nade Haley an abstract but suggestive set composed of window frames, clear plastic, stretched ropes and colored tape. But Burkhardt's desultory solo within this context displayed no evident connection with the objects or sound. Even more baffling were the three solos and a duet under the title, "Portraits," which had moments of arresting invention but on the whole neither definable mood nor legible theme. This is the sort of choreography that leaves a spectator feeling either out of it or stupid or both -- surely not Burkhardt's intention, but the effect of clues so private and obscure as to resist unscrambling.