The movement made me think of honey being poured in twisting strands -- here thickly, there in sparsely winding filaments, now rapidly, now with a lazy, sensual languor. But this was only the texture of the dance, striking as it was. There was also its protean muscular impetus, modulating from brusque attack to smooth flow in the blink of an eye, and an entrancing flux of spatial composition as the dancers streamed across the stage in ever-shifting configurations.
It was a dazzling display, as choreography and as performance, and close to intoxicating in its prodigality of invention. Yet there was also something curiously superficial about the experience of it. For all its change and contrast, it seemed hermetic, one-dimensional, narcissistic. What did all this sleek, beautiful, meticulously inflected movement have to do with other than itself? Or is that enough -- is movement "for its own sake" a self-sufficient art?
Such were the questions raised by the Washington debut of Deborah Gladstein & Dancers at the Dance Place this past weekend, where the choreographer and the five other women of her troupe performed her evening-length, five-part "Burning Through," which had its premiere at New York's Dance Theater Workshop last spring.
Though choreographic ideas do recur, by and large the five sections are independent -- they hang together the way the movements of a classical symphony do, more by virtue of inner affinity than external linkage. The first, "Wild Patience," is an active, swinging quartet. The second, "Gestures of Abundance," divides into three duets, each with its own cluster of characteristic motifs. "Kalahari," the third, is actually a video (projected as a film) that plays with body parts and angles of view in kaleidoscopic fashion -- the dancers seem to be immersed in a black pool and you feel as if you're looking at them from a roving peephole. The fourth part, "Return," is a brilliant solo e'tude for Gladstein, and the fifth, "Burning Through," is a high-energy perpetual-motion finale spiced with stamped accents and syncopated hand claps. Composer and video artist Sam Kanter contributed both the "Kalahari" images and the pulsing, minimalist music for all five sections.
It's hard to put a finger on what it is about this excellently crafted, alluringly unfolding opus that makes it seem a bit claustrophobic and precious. Perhaps it's the silky hedonism it shares with other allied examples of Post-Modern chic -- a kind of insulation against the warts and worries of the real world, the "Bad Smells" that someone like Twyla Tharp (it's the title of one of her works) prefers to confront head on. It's gratifying to escape into this material with its seductive designs and kinesthetic thrills. But it's rather like an artificially induced high, and the euphoria tends to evaporate swiftly once you come back down.
Is it fair to reproach Gladstein with not doing something else when she does what she does to perfection? Probably not. But thinking of a work like "Burning Through" in the context of the deeper possibilities of contemporary dance art does put it into a different perspective.