David Appel, the New York-based dancer-choreographer who held forth in a solo program at the Washington Project for the Arts last night, led us from fascination to exasperation in one not-so-easy 60-minute lesson.
His performance last night had the same mixture of qualities exhibited in a similar solo offering at WPA last May, except that the proportions seem in the meantime to have tipped over to the negative side. On the previous occasion, Appel's technical virtuosity and intriguingly eccentric personal style outweighed the tedium and poverty of his abstract, drily conceptual, largely improvised choreographic material.
In last night's "Open Wing," however -- also mostly improvisatory and similarly cerebral -- the tedium took over for good after about the first 20 minutes. One could almost hear the audience collectively asking itself, why are we sitting here submitting to this so politely?
Small and wiry, Appel used his body like a finely tuned instrument, moving with quiet but unbroken concentration along a fitful erratic course, marked by abrupt shifts of direction, weight, accent, energy and tempo. The movement was sporadically accompanied by Appel's own whistling, chants, snorts, barks, or snatches of song. After an excruciatingly protracted on-stage warm-up, the work proper got started promisingly enough, and here and there throughout the piece came passages of compelling interest. At his best, Appel keeps you riveted with exquisitely wrought minutiae -- an adagio crawl like an ancient turtle; a sudden distracted glance across his shoulder; a quick, nervous bout of hopscotch; a soft strumming of fingers.
There's an odd sense of indecision and tonelessness about the work that's disquieting, however -- it's as if Appel isn't really there. His muscles execute calculated commands, but his self appears to be 20 steps ahead, surveying and appraising his next options. Whatever he gains in spontaneity, moreover, is offset by the apparent aimlessness of his meanderings.
There's a strain in "post-modern" dance, as exemplified by Appel, in which the creative artist conceives of himself as a sort of Dr. Feelgood -- if what he's doing is internally satisfying to him, he lets communication fall where it may. But "Open Wing" illustrates the flip side of this approach: If you give up caring about your audience, they may well give up caring about you.
The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow afternoon.