The dances of Mel Wong, whose New York-based troupe performed at the Dance Place this past weekend, reverse the old maxim about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Each separate component in Wong's choreography--the dancing, the music, the decor, and at least in localized specifics, the movement itself--seems excellent. Yet in the aggregate they leave one with a sense of unfulfilled ambition and incoherent purpose.
Only one of the seven dancers was with the troupe in its Dance Place appearance last year, but the virtually new ensemble is splendid indeed--attractive, swift, strong, clean and precise. In fact, the expertise of the executants contributes to the ultimate disappointment by raising expectations. The music by resident musicians Rob Kaplan and Skip La Plante is on an equally high plane--La Plante works with "homemade" instruments and is extremely good at it. The same goes for the costuming and props by Wong himself, who is an artist as well as a choreographer; his lively visual sense always gives the eye something to relish.
But the actual choreography is something else again. The movement vocabulary, and the idea of combining autonomous actions of varying tempo, dynamics and shape, derive from Merce Cunningham, and they are capably, even inventively handled. The contents of each work, however, seem distressingly arbitrary and interchangeable--any given piece could be half as short or half as long again without noticeable effect. Wong gives us a number of gestural and scenic symbols to operate with--hints of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and colored streamers in "Telegram," for example; or arms waving like fishtails and a pouring of sand in "Desert Ghosts." But these teasers never connect with each other or the movement, which just keeps on in its busy, nonlinear way, pretty much the same in each work. From moment to moment the dancing is intriguing to watch, but when it's all over it feels as if the point has slipped by one's senses.