A year ago, the first time Boston-based dancer-choreographer Beth Soll brought her company to the Dance Place, her work inspired a paradoxical reaction. Her evening-long "Dances of Paradise and Everyday Life," like other pieces of hers I'd previously seen in New York, seemed at once utterly mystifying and completely enthralling. Soll returned Friday night, with four compositions, all Washington premieres, but somehow the equation was altered. There was mystification galore, but it was seldom accompanied by feelings of intuitive fulfillment.
Soll's choreography isn't a matter of pure abstraction -- if it were, one could savor its rhythmic, dynamic and formal properties and let it go at that. But it's clear Soll has more on her mind than formalisms -- the works are too full of evocative gesture and suggestive imagery to register as mere design. From the careful and precise way the pieces are constructed, and from the decisive, committed way they are performed, one is bound to infer that they make sense to Soll, and to her dancers. But I, for one, felt completely in the dark about what she was up to, what she was attempting to convey.
The evening led off with "Duet for Four Figures," a collaboration between Soll and another Boston choreographer, Ruth Birnberg, who joined her in the performance. The four figures are the two dancers and two life-size, faceless dolls dressed in peasant costumes -- "soft sculptures" by Soll's mother, artist Liese Bronfenbrenner. Accompanied by Barbara Dacey, who played guitar, drummed and chanted, and by a tape of mingled voices, the black-clad dancers used the dolls as "partners," tossed them, cradled them, and at times, ignored them. Like everything else by Soll, the piece had a quality of reverie about it, as if you were being let in on someone else's dream. It held attention; it was danced with a rapt exactitude and a real sense of conviction. It may have been about adult desires to play with dolls, to treat others as dolls, to see oneself as a doll, tossed about by destiny. But I'm far from sure, to put it mildly.
"Detail" was a brief solo danced by Mary Socha, who created a pattern like a bobbin weaving a thread of yarn -- up, down, up, down, up, down and then across. "Masque: Attempts to Fly," choreographed for a Paris celebration of the first manned balloon flight, involved a face-like prop and mask, a mini-trampoline, music by Vivaldi and Bach, blackouts, costume changes, and a passage of tapless tap dancing. It avoided most of the cliche's of flying movement, so successfully that I had no idea what the dance had to do with its subject. Lastly, there was the lengthy ensemble work, "Summerdance," with an arresting musical score by Robert Aldridge, and imagery that included embracing couples, a hootchy-kootchy solo and another in toe shoes, a campfire songfest, a ceremony with two bagels and another with a silver chalice, stray laughter and conversation, and many comings and goings.
Soll remains an interesting choreographer, but she needs somehow to redraw the line between private fantasy and public expression.