One can read much of the history of choreographic "postmodernism" in the work of Risa Jaroslow, who appeared with the three other women dancers of her New York troupe in a Washington debut at the Dance Place last night.
In one sequence or another, there are the spare balleticisms already introduced by Merce Cunningham, the great patriarch of abstract movement; the traces of everyday activity inherited from the Judson Dance Theater; the spinning and ritualisms of Laura Dean and others, and the kind of layered pulse music that went along; the loose practice garb and sneakers or jazz shoes that have largely replaced bare feet; the fitful, brushing gestures of Deborah Hay; the casual shrugs and squiggles of Twyla Tharp; and so on down the line.
Unlike so many latter-day postmodernists, however, Jaroslow has not been smothered under cliquish conformities. From these myriad raw materials she has managed to coin a distinctive dance sensibility and look of her own, more easily recognized than described. Part of her individuality lies in the spongy, lubricated look of the dancing, by herself and her colleagues, as though every body joint were saturated in oil. Part of it has to do with her uncluttered sense of space, giving legibility to every shape and phrase. Still another part derives from a continuous unspooling of novel movement ideas.
"Fine Line," the quartet with a score by Elliot Randall that began the program, displayed all these merits and others, but in overextended profusion -- it's a piece badly in need of pruning. What followed, though -- "Rites of Passing," a 1981 black and white film made by Jaroslow and cinematographer Nancy Schreiber at New York's Battery Park Landfill using 12 dancers -- was a dazzler. The rectilinear lineup and gestures of the start mirror the lower Manhattan skyscrapers that serve as backdrop, until the dancers romp and roll down the sandy slope and respond to a different environment. The ending is a reversal of the celebrated Entrance of the Shades in the ballet, "La Bayadere," with the dancers marching up the incline and disappearing back into the city from whence they came.
Jaroslow's solo, "Guerrilla War," a study in internal conflict, revealed how much of her style is drawn from her own rangy strengths as a dancer. Best of all was the concluding trio, "Partners in Time," set to a superb minimalist violin score by Michael Galasso. The velvety nap of the movement yielded a kind of ecstatic lyricism that's as rare in other kinds of dance as in postmodern precincts.