At a droll, dadaistic "lecture demonstration" presented at George Washington University Saturday night, New York dancer-choreographer Douglas Dunn found himself at one point bent backward over a table top, his face a precarious inch from the floor as he struggled to right himself. Looking out at the audience, he declared, "If I get hurt, I'm gonna blame it on you."
The lecture-demo was part of a constellation of programs and events involving Dunn, dancer Deborah Riley of his New York troupe, and composer John Driscoll, all under the umbrella of the Smithsonian's american Dance Experience series. The culmination -- tonight at the Marvin Theater -- will be a performance of Dunn's evening-length duo "Foot Rules," for himself and Riley, with Driscoll's specially composed electronic score, "Ebers and Mole," as the music.
"I like to move first and talk later," said Dunn, discussing his attitude toward a workshop for 10 dancers he'd been conducting at GWU, another of the week's events.
"Move first, talk later" might well serve as a motto for 38-year-old Dunn, who, as one of the leading figures of the so-called "post-modern" generation of dancers, approaches choreography as a species of research. His laboratory is the dance studio, and his test tubes and reagents are fellow dancers and movement impulses. His experiments take the form of testing movement hypotheses -- if a dancer moves thus-and-so, he asks himself, how will this relate to his or her neighbors, to the ambient space, to the movements that came before and those that follow? But the questioning is acted out first, and articulated, if at all, only afterward.
"Teaching a dance class or workshop," Dunn says, "is for me first of all an intense physical confrontation. I come into the studio and I don't know these people at all, but we bounce off each other through movement -- I thrive on this. I don't give them a chance for questions; I want to deal purely with the instinct to move. Then, at the end of the week, it's nice to finally communicate by other means, find out who we are in other ways."
Dunn feels that "investigating" dancers through movement uncovers truths that aren't otherwise accessible. I remember when I was first attending Merce Cunningham's dance classes [in the late '60s], I'd know the other dancers, visually, in the studio. But when I'd see the same people in their street clothes in the elevator, I wouldn't even recognize them. In a way, they'd not only put on other clothes, but their 'other' selves. Particularly among American dancers, dance has always been a way of adding to or escaping from one's 'ordinary,' social self -- that's what gives our need to dance such urgency. It was true for me; I knew I wanted something else in my life, and I got it in dancing."
As a youth in California, Dunn was keen on athletics. His first brush with dance came with ballet classes at Princeton University -- his "professional" debut was as Benno in a Princeton Ballet Society staging of "Swan Lake." "There were no other guys around," he recalls. "I was valuable by virtue of gender if not technique." Later, in New York, he was to perform with Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer and the Grand Union dance collective. By 1971, he had started making dances of his own, in a variety of unconventional modes.
Dunn continues to strike out in surprising directions. Last fall he fulfilled a commission from Michel Guy to create a version of "Pulcinella" for the Paris Opera Ballet's Stravinsky festival. "It was very different and very difficult for me," he says. "It was unusual just for me to have something -- music, a theme, a concept -- in my head before I set to work. The main problem was the rhythm, not to get trapped by it into that dutiful, keeping-the-beat look. I didn't want the dance to 'follow' the music, but I didn't feel I could ignore or satirize it either." Dunn was pleased enough with the project, however, to agree to a further assignment with the Paris Opera Ballet later this year, this time in collaboration with jazz musician Steve Lacey.
Despite Dunn's choreographic unorthodoxies, there's a strong "classical" streak in him. "It's one of the things that attracted me to Cunningham," he says, "the elegance, the extension of the body into space, the idea of dance as a visual art. It was art history I studied at Princeton, and I've always been very oriented towards shape and the rhythm of shape in space."