The signs have been accumulating over the past few years that the long-anticipated decentralization of dance creativity is now actually happening. New York City remains the dance capital of the world, and the wellspring of almost all that is new and novel in the art. But genuinely fresh, original and distinguished choreography has begun to sprout forth in far-flung sites across the nation, suggesting that the country is now prepared to encourage such break-throughs wherever they may crop up, and that the Big Apple is no longer the exclusive locus for esthetic discovery.
A striking case in point was the appearance Thursday night of the Charlie Vernon Performance Company at the University of Maryland's Studio Theater, in a joint performance with our local Improvisations Unlimited troupe. Vernon is from Chicago, and established his own company there in 1979 -- the group has been making waves, on its own turf and elsewhere, ever since. Thursday night's program, consisting of four Vernon pieces -- among them a solo for himself, two works for his Performance Company and one for Improvisations Unlimited -- made clear what the fuss is about, and that it's for real.
Vernon's work falls clearly within the mold of what's been dubbed "post-modern" dance in its focus on highly individualized movement invention, in its athletic virtuosity, in its links with minimalist music and its use of words. Indeed, there's a kinship between Vernon and other post-moderns, like David Gordon and Trisha Brown, on the one hand, and between Vernon and "performance artists" such as Laurie Anderson, on the other. But Vernon establishes a strong sense of personal style, not only through his charisma as a dancer, but also through the eccentric stamp of his choreography and the particular ways he mixes the ingredients that have become the common coin of post-modernism.
Thursday night's program wasn't entirely consistent in quality -- Vernon isn't always as scrupulous an editor of his prolific outpourings as he might be -- but all four works had impressive moments and the two strongest were knockouts.
"Out of Bounds," in five sections to recorded classical selections, was a special case. The piece was commissioned by Improvisations Unlimited and Vernon created it for the troupe during a week's residency here in January, letting the dancers concoct their own movement material within structures proposed by him. The resulting work, engagingly danced by the ensemble of eight, was on the diffuse side, but it had some wonderful passages, among them a sort of self-extending slalom course to the music of Pachelbel's "Canon in D."
"Dances of Identity," the program opener, also seemed less than completely successful. It attempts a verbal-choreographic examination of dance personality, but the connection between words and movement is often too arbitrary to be convincing. In the two outstanding works of the evening, however -- Vernon's solo meditation on war, sleep and death, "The Little Dream Dances," accompanied by the eerie sounds of Australian didjeridu music, and "Dances of Many Lands," a wittily ambitious essay on the meanings and varieties of dance art -- it was precisely the wit and power of the interplay between text and movement that proved, so persuasive.
The program will be repeated tonight.