The Karen Jamieson Dance Company, a seven-member troupe from Vancouver giving its first U.S. performances at Baltimore's Theatre Project last week, projects a potent, contemporary sense of identity. The cumulative impression of Thursday night's program was one of power, drive and concentration.
Beyond its own interest, the Jamieson appearance marks an auspicious reentry into the dance sphere for the Theatre Project, which reopened its intimate, 157-seat performance space in January after two years of renovation. The Jamieson troupe launched a spring Dancefest there that will embrace four other dance attractions from New York and Philadelphia running through early June (another series is in the works for the fall), with an accent on the new and unusual. It promises to be a splendid addition to the progressively oriented performance series within the Baltimore-Washington dance orbit.
Jamieson, a compactly sinewy dancer with some resemblance to Jan Van Dyke, spent four years studying dance and performing in New York before returning to Vancouver to establish her own company in 1983. The other dancers -- three men and three women, all Canadian, all choreographers in their own right -- share with Jamieson a high order of energy and a strong sense of commitment to one another and to the work at hand.
Jamieson chooses to work with original music by Canadian composers, most of it in a quasi-new-wave vein with zapping synthesizer rhythms, persistent drones and electronically modified voices. Her choreography shows traces of influence from various contemporary sources -- Pina Bausch's expressionism and brute physicality; Kei Takei's universalized rituals; a neo-Gothic grotesquerie akin to Japan's Butoh movement; and a punk insistence on sexual antagonisms. But Jamieson has somehow assimilated all this into a synthesis very much her own.
"Cantus," a solo, had Alison Crawford knotting herself through images of bondage and struggle, while two menacing "keepers" goaded her on, muttering words, beating out rhythms and at one point breaking into ominous laughter. Jamieson's solo, from her "Coming Out of Chaos," began with bird mimicry atop a ladder, after which she descended slitheringly to the floor for shiverings, spins, rolls, crawls, and writhing gestures before a final return to the ladder top.
In "Hoofers," for two couples, the dancers wore high, soft heels and rushed about, at first robotically, then with increasingly unbuttoned frenzy, occasionally bumping bellies or linking into hopping circles or chains. "Road Show," for all seven dancers, put Jamieson at a microphone as a sort of crooner heading a manic troupe of zanies (wearing costumes from all the previous pieces), cycling and recycling imagery of fighting, embracing, domination and submission -- it looked like a sort of punk "Carmina Burana."
The remaining work, also for the whole troupe, was "Sisyphus," created in 1983 and a sort of signature piece for Jamieson. In a refrain faithful to the title myth, the dancers ran flying to the rear wall, bashed themselves against it, fell back, rolled over and went at it again. In between came a relentless tapestry of accessory images, including heaps or towers of bodies, fierce wrestling, wearied crumplings, dogged marches.
The downside to all this was a curious monotony of texture. The repertoire of effects, striking as many were, seemed limited and unvarying from piece to piece. Once the initial idea was clear, no further enrichment or elaboration seemed forthcoming, and the impact dribbled away. Still, Jamieson has a prolific choreographic imagination, and one looks to future work.