Jan Van Dyke has exerted such pervasive influence on the Washington modern dance community over the years that it's always been a bit hard to separate her impact from her artistic identity. A native Washingtonian--active here for many years as a teacher, impresario, writer, catalyst and oracle, as well as a performer and choreographer--she now resides in California. Her legacy, however, lives on in this city, in her students (among them some of the area's most accomplished dancers), in the striving spirit she engendered among colleagues, and in her work, perpetuated not only through local revivals but also by periodic visits from Van Dyke herself.
This past weekend at the Dance Project (founded a decade ago by Van Dyke and now directed by a former pupil, Carlo Perlo) marked another such return. For the occasion, Van Dyke offered four solos she created over the past 10 years, plus a 1982 quartet, "Spike," danced by guest artists from the Contemporary Dance Theatre of Cincinnati, including the troupe's director, Jefferson James.
Van Dyke is past 40 now, but her long, lean, trim, youthful appearance seems unaltered, and her technique is as smoothly precise as ever. The effect of her dancing is always partly due to her presence and look--Van Dyke's face combines the severity of a nun with the inscrutable mirth of a pixie, and she uses these qualities with the same conscious control that directs her limbs; there's that sly, backward glance over the shoulder, for example, with its suggestion of a shared, amusing secret. She also knows well the dramatic value of pause and stillness.
The program also reconfirmed one's earlier impressions of her choreographic qualities--earnestness, cerebral rigor, understated whimsy, thematic coherence, and a certain dry elusiveness. The movement vocabulary, grounded in a generalized modern dance idiom, alters with the intent of each work. In the "Golddust Woman" solo from the "Fleetwood-Mac Suite," a flirtatious pop style gives flavoring. "Big Show," to Sousa, uses cheerleading and drum majorette motifs to support its ballpark atmosphere. "Waltz," Van Dyke's "2001"-inspired adagio to "The Blue Danube," pits ultra-slow motion against the pull of Strauss' rhythm.
To a large extent in all this work, the ideas seemed more compelling than their dance embodiments. There's a sense of stifled spontaneity about Van Dyke's choreography, as if calculation and ingenuity had bottled up the underlying visceral impulse. The resulting dances are sometimes structurally admirable, but seldom emotionally involving--they scan, but they don't really move.