In Wendy Woodson's latest dance-theater piece, "Roomers," which was premiered at Dance Place this past weekend by her troupe, Present Company, we're introduced to four couples. By the title, and the set -- a series of folding room dividers -- we may suppose them to be fellow boarders, cliff dwellers or condo residents.
In expository duets we come gradually to differentiate the couples, a process further aided by color-coded costumes and electronic music by Kit Watkins, which underline the temperamental character of the couples. Couple No. 1, playful and euphoric, appear to be newcomers, testing the waters. Couple No. 2 are frisky, sportive -- they jog a lot and stamp rhythmically. Couple No. 3 are Romeo and Juliet, wistful young lovers. Couple No. 4 burst the bonds of repressed hostility and lash out into violence.
As things progress, there comes a section in which Couple No. 1 takes on, one by one, the traits of the other couples. Then there's a brief, turbulent orgy, and a brisk passage in which the couples freely change partners and emotional motifs. In the end, the other couples having retreated behind screens, Couple No. 1 is seen in a final, tender embrace.
One can interpret these happenings in a variety of ways -- as observations on social interaction given a common dwelling or environment; as a fantasy of Couple No. 1, trying out different life styles, and so on.
The problem is, this all sounds more fascinating than it looks. The choreographic and gestural information about the couples remains at a simplistic level; not only do we not know who, where, when and what they are, they don't have any interesting, subtle, strange or otherwise compelling attributes as people. The performers, moreover -- some with theater backgrounds, some coming from dance -- fail to compensate interpretively for the shortcomings of the structure.
Woodson has worked in the past with Ping Chong and Meredith Monk, and her aim seems to be the same kind of quasi-surrealist theater of images as theirs. In "Roomers," as in past work, she has achieved the look, the modality, even the atmosphere of her models, but not yet the nuance or substance. Woodson deserves praise for her goals, for her risk-taking and for her willingness to tackle a difficult, potentially rewarding form. One can only hope that future attempts will bring a greater degree of fulfillment.