A program note observed that Anna Sokolow, whose choreography formed the centerpiece of last night's program by the Maryland Dance Theater at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, is "recognized in the dance profession as one of the giants of dance in the twentieth century." A giant she assuredly is, but the recognition is less certain -- many younger dancers know nothing of her work or stature. For complex reasons, Sokolow's fame has never kept pace with her accomplishment, despite the fact that her influence has spared far and wide. Yet, as last night's account of "Dreams" -- a grim masterpiece from 1961 -- so forcibly reminded us, she remains one of a kind.
Like Martha Graham, in whose company she danced for a decade, Sokolow concerns herself with psychological innards. Unlike Graham, however, her focus isn't on the libido, or the reinterpretation of ancient myths. Rather, Sokolow has sought to give expression to the psychic tribulations of an era which has known such watchwords as anxiety, alienation, and "the final solution." This is not to say her work is bitter -- it is often about bitterness, but its tone is prevailingly compassionate, and in any case, there are many other sides to Sokolow's dances. But she has never looked away from the terror or ugliness of the world merely because that's not what sells tickets.
"Dreams," in particular, is Sokolow's statement on Hitler's death camps -- it's a delirium of agony, a vision of spirits in terminal anguish and degradation, and it comes at you like a branding iron. In the opening scene, a woman is walled into rigidity by the bodies of ax-faced men in black; her mouth gapes open in soundless screaming. In an ensuing solo, a man's body heaves convulsively as if in wretching, and he fights his own limbs. In the coda, the ensemble is huddled on the floor, moaning faintly, intermittently. There are no explicit, physical atrocities here -- it's soul Sokolow lays bare, in a language of movement that owes nothing to conventional dance.
Except for a few moments that seemed more calculated than felt, last night's MDT performance -- a first for the work in Washington -- was searingly persuasive; Sokolow herself joined the company for a curtain call. "Dreams" has its dangers on a repertory program. Beside it, other things tend to seem trifling -- not because of the subject matter, but the uncompromising intensity of Sokolow's art. Nevertheless, the program had additional satisfactions of a contrasting sort, including an admirably vibrant account of a movement from Doris Humphrey's "Brandenburg Concerto" (posthumously completed by Ruth Currier), and a repeat of Larry Warren's overextended but beguiling study in seashore erotica, "Post Cards." Also presented were "Moonscape," a new, rather soggy romantic duet by Alvin Mayes, and a spotty performance of Hannah Kahn's "Joint Venture."