Make no mistake--Jennifer Muller and The Works, the nine-member troupe that made its Dance America series debut at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater last night, shakes a mean leg. These are sleek, agile, jet-propelled dancers; they radiate fitness and camaraderie and they zoom, zip, soar and canter around the stage like so many high-strung thoroughbreds. The sheer animalistic gusto is hard to resist, and, indeed, the near-capacity audience showed no inclination to do so--they were thrilled, and responded accordingly.
Hence, this is a minority report. The troupe's spirit and proficiency, along with Muller's skill as an artificer of dance pieces, are admirable on their own terms. But for all the verve and spontaneous veneer (there's lots of smiling at each other and the audience, and in one work the women chuckle in, presumably, amorous rapture), what Muller is up to strikes me as a contraction of the esthetic perimeters of dance rather than an expansion--a restriction, in fact, to the almost purely physical.
It scarcely needs repeating, of course, that dance is a physical business axiomatically--it's an art of bodies in motion, and its sensuality comes with the territory. From "La Sylphide" and before, to Paul Taylor's "Private Domain" and beyond, its most frequent subject has been human sexuality, in one degree of stylization or another. But if it stops there, as I think Muller's dances do, then the art is cheating us. Heaven knows the great pioneers of modern dance, from Isadora and St. Denis to Graham, Humphrey and the rest, were grounded in the physical. They all, however, also construed dance to be an expression of the human spirit in all its manifold dimensions.
Muller descends, in her background, from the Humphrey-Weidman-Limon tradition (she was a leading Limon dancer for nine years), but her work is in effect a refutation of Limon's humanism, in its worship of body and appetite. There's nothing coarse or vulgar about Muller's dances; the company just looks like a bunch of happy-go-lucky surfers on a perennial beach party (gamesmanship is a large part of the choreography; sleepwear or beachwear is the main costume; and the music gurgles on like endless breakers). In her flagrantly exhibitionist transports of energy, in her trendiness and superficiality, Muller is a modern dance parallel for ballet's Gerald Arpino, but even Arpino seems to have more notes on his flute.
Each of last night's three half-hour dances, none of them more recent than 1978, had its own thematic conceit; in other respects they were much alike. "Tub," played, literally, with water--dousings, dunkings, splashings and their erotic connotations. "Lovers" was a series of simulated pursuits and ravishments said to have been inspired by the pictures of Gustave Klimt, but the atmosphere was pure Malibu. "Speeds" was an athletic romp displaying abruptly varying or combined tempos, plus a gratuitous embrace or two. One past Muller review exclaimed "at last someone has put the fun back in modern dance"--but who ever thought it was gone?