the touring modern dance troupe in residence at the University of Maryland -- has maintained a consistently high standard of performance over its 14 years of existence, as well as a repertory notable for both diversity and breadth. At the Marvin Theatre last night, where the troupe performed for the first time, the dancing upheld the MDT tradition of excellence, despite the inevitable, substantial changes in personnel (eight new dancers among a total of 12).
The program, though, was a strange one, by accustomed MDT yardsticks. None of the more widely known modern dance choreographers of recent or past eras was represented. Instead, there was one holdover from last year -- associate director Anne Warren's engaging "Simple Symphony"; the premiere of director Larry Warren's "The Party Game," a flawed but lovably impudent fabrication; and two new works by youngish New York choreographers that ranged from disappointing to disastrous. Since the MDT repertory grows by slow accretion -- only a few additions each year are economically or artistically feasible -- the criteria for acquisition may be in need of some rethinking.
"Simple Symphony" is a svelte, lyrical abstraction to music by Benjamin Britten -- old-fashioned in style, but constructed with a kind of modest, unobtrusive craftsmanship that never goes out of fashion. A smooth performance by a cast of seven was highlighted by the contributions of MDT veterans Mary Williford and Donna Brandenburg, two of the area's outstanding dancers.
"The Party Game" once again illustrates Larry Warren's gift for dramatic pungency, along with his witty insights into the rites of courtship. The subject, as in two of his previous creations for MDT, is sexual skirmishing. The curtain rises on four young women in party dresses and four young men in tuxes, seated in a row of patio chairs. As old Victor Herbert tunes burble away, the characters interrupt their chatter and start to dance demurely -- it could be a '30s prom.
But once the group is reseated, there's an outbreak of gropings and rampant caressings that set an entirely different mood. The lights grow low; the women slink out of their dresses and the men doff their jackets, as the shenanigans become more insistently lascivious. One shy, short man (Ron Guillory) who has retained his jacket finds himself surrounded, pampered and kissed by the slip-clad girls, until all whoop out "Surprise!," and begin to sing "Happy Birthday" in chorus. The rest of the piece -- is it all the birthday-boy's fantasy? -- is a kind of taunting make-out game in which Guillory is mercilessly teased by both sexes.
The trouble with this tart, shrewdly observed charade (which also uses original music by David Freivogel) is that it wears out its own conceits by overextension -- it would be twice as effective at half the length.
It seemed sheer folly to put Mark Taylor's "From the Archives: Social Dances, Vol. XXI (The Tango)" right after "The Party Game," since Taylor's premiere is another satirical, battle-of-the-sexes number with period music, formal dress and a chair sequence. It looked all the weaker after the Warren, especially with its watered-down devices borrowed from Charles Moulton and Nina Wiener. Even more ineptly derivative was Richard Merrill's "Human Interest Story," a disorganized pastiche of secondhand postmodernisms devoid of any kind of interest, human or otherwise. It's good to see MDT reaching for contemporaneity, but not at the cost of quality.