Externally, the debut of the Abigail Kaplan Dance Company at the Dance Place this past weekend would seem to have had a lot of things going for it. It just goes to show that choreography worthy of the name takes more than externals.
Kaplan is a well-pedigreed dancer-choreographer-designer. She has a degree from Boston Conservatory, and is completing a master's at American University (the Dance Place concert was doubling as her thesis project). She's performed with such groups as Tamiris-Nagrin and the Gus Solomons company. She's taught at Skidmore, Princeton and AU, and has shown her dances in Massachusetts, New Jersey and this area. She's also worked as a costumer and fashion designer. Last fall, she was appointed artistic director of Alexandria's CODA troupe. For the Dance Place program, as often in the past, Kaplan designed her own costumes, props, masks and make-up.
All the same, the evening offered slender evidence of choreographic aptitude. Most of the works displayed weren't abstractions, dramatic pieces or psychological explorations. Rather, they emphasized a sort of self-consciously "picturesque," pseudo-ceremonial exoticism that looked like a hangover from the Denishawn era. The movement was couched in a blandly eclectic, underenergized idiom that seldom strayed from cliches. And despite some perfunctory nods toward modernity, the choreography as a whole seemed untouched by contemporary sensibility of any kind. The same could be said of the concert's stagecraft and design aspects.
There is potential virtue in revivifying traditional modes, but Kaplan's approach to ritualism and primitive culture was far too simplistic to qualify. "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo" had five women in leotards hopping around with the aid of bamboo poles, to the taped recitation of a Kipling story and Australian aboriginal music, all in a vein of precious whimsy. "Beyond the Western Ocean," to music by Hovhaness, sported decor that included what looked like a stylized volleyball court, some filmy hangings, and four scrawny trees -- none of it helped dispel the tepid obscurity of the dance. The five-part "Mother/Rites," accompanied by folk music (arranged by Christian Pestalozzi) from England, the Near East, Bali and other places, was a hopelessly banal exercise in primordial imagery, minus the stark vehemence (Kaplan's "Shaman" solo excepted) that might have given it a semblance of conviction.
It's true that the company was an awkward, ad-hoc mixture of AU students, guest artists, and dancers from CODA -- alone among them, Pearl Germaine showed individual spark. And it's also true that injury to one performer forced a zero hour reshuffling of casts. Still, it's hard to imagine that even a much improved standard of performance would have compensated for the choreographic shortcomings.