The Limbs Dance Company from New Zealand, which made its Washington debut in performances at the Dance Place last weekend, is a small group of engaging, well-trained performers who are evidently striving to establish a distinctive modern dance beachhead on their native shores. Most of the nine-member troupe began their studies in New Zealand or Australia; a few have ventured to Europe or America. The artistic director, Mary-Jane O'Reilly, who helped found Limbs in 1977, not only choreographs much of the company's material but also often enlists the creative help of young New Zealand composers.
Seen in the context of the contemporary international scene, however, Limbs has a relatively provincial look. The dance idioms are, for the most part, tamely eclectic. The attempts to relate the repertoire to New Zealand folkways and traditions -- Maori and Polynesian, for example -- seem superficial and contrived. The major problem is an affliction that besets many troupes in many places, large and small -- choreographic anemia. From the sampling shown at the Dance Place one would have to conclude that Limbs simply lacks a strong enough repertorial base to make more than an agreeable but minor impression.
The prime exception was a solo called "Pinprick," an inventive, intricately formed essay in the abstract vein of Merce Cunningham, with an interesting sound score by Mexican composer Javier Alvarez. As rivetingly executed by Joanne Kelly -- with her balletic sharpness and personal intensity, the outstanding dancer of the group -- the nervous, darting volatility of the piece made quite a forceful statement. Also a cut above the usual was "Knee Dance," a compactly charged trio to music by Laurie Anderson, choreographed by Douglas Wright (formerly of Limbs, now with Paul Taylor's company) and smartly set forth by O'Reilly, Susan Peacock and Bruce Hopkins.
The rest of the fare -- including O'Reilly's simplistically macho "Warrior," calisthenic "Poi" and pop-image "Souvenirs," along with a negligible pair of duets by other choreographers -- seldom rose above workshop level in either concept or design.