Jan Van Dyke has been living in San Francisco for the past three years, but her annual visits to the Dance Place never seem like visits -- it was her own groundbreaking efforts here for more than a decade that led to the establishment of the Dance Place (now directed by Carla Perlo) as a harbor for contemporary dance.
On this occasion, Van Dyke is doing double duty. She's in the midst of a two-week residency at George Washington University, teaching and also creating a piece for the GW dance ensemble to be staged in April. And for the Dance Place program Friday and Saturday, she brought members of her San Francisco troupe -- Jan Van Dyke & Dancers -- to perform new and recent repertory.
The program, with pieces dating from 1980 (the year she left Washington) to the present, shows Van Dyke still to be largely involved with abstract formal concerns, making works in a spirit of inquiry and problem solving.
The hazards of the dance life intruded on her plans -- she sustained a serious foot injury before her arrival, and one of her dancers was similarly sidelined. A former colleague filled in for the dancer, and the solo Van Dyke had scheduled for herself was replaced by a splendid excerpt from Maida Withers' "Families Are Forever," affectingly danced by members of Withers' Dance Construction Company.
A native Washingtonian, Van Dyke was the link between such pioneers as Hedi Pope and Ethel Butler -- her own teachers -- and those younger dancer-choreographers, many of them pupils of Van Dyke, who now dominate the scene here. The dichotomy between old and new approaches to modern dance in Van Dyke's work is accompanied by another, between dance as pure kinetics and dance as dramatic evocation. The dramatic elements have survived in her recent creations mainly as fleeting gestural features, offering elusive, often ambiguous hints of emotional tensions and attitudes. But since the late 1970s, complex mathematical, rhythmic and structural preoccupations seem to have taken the upper hand in her choreography.
Sometimes Van Dyke's tactics pay off in terms of visceral-intellectual stimulation, and sometimes the works seem like barren acrostics, insufficiently motivated by anything other than calculation. The present program covered the whole spectrum, from engrossing constructions to dry enigmas. Perhaps the clearest and most effective work was the 1984 "Quartet," in which, to the spaced-out music of Peter Gabriel, a starting configuration of two pairs of women evolved subtly into a trio and an odd-woman-out, and thence into an integrated foursome, at the end splitting back into the original double pairing. In the duet "Pearl," it was Bach's music that dictated the course -- an opening stop-and-go, slow, phrase-by-phrase counterpoint mirroring the melodic progress of Bach's Prelude, and a following, more energetic, more sharply contoured section echoing the more vigorous contrasts of the Fugue. Harder to scan was the trio "Tiny Life," set to stylized folk music by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and highlighting an opposition between small, enclosed, mincing movements of the three dancers linked together, and wide-ranging, breakaway solos by each.
Most nebulous was "She Said," a halting, cryptic duet set to music by Tangerine Dream. "Stamping Dance," created in Van Dyke's Washington days, an endurance contest in the form of a pattern dance with an obsessive stamping motif, seemed at once the most physical and the most cerebral of the lot. As ever, one came away with a feeling that Van Dyke is still experimenting -- hunting for a balance between form and content -- and that her search isn't over yet.