Last night's program by Cathy Paine & Friends at the Montgomery College Performing Arts Center closed, fittingly enough, with a Paine solo called "Swan Song." The title, in a typical Paine manner, could also be interpreted as a double entendre specific to this occasion, an end not only to the concert but also to her long residence in Washington. In August she moves to the West Coast.
Her departure will leave a decided gap in the Washington dance scene. Paine has been active here for over a decade, as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and as associate director of the Dance Place since its founding in 1980. She's filled all these roles with uncommon distinction.
From the start, her dancing has set a standard for precision and eloquence matched by few hereabouts. She's carved a niche of her own as a choreographer, too. Her dances have been marked by compositional clarity, wit, imagination and diversity of content. Paine's no revolutionary, nor has she tried to shake the heavens; the modesty and lack of pretension in her choreography has been part of its appeal. But her best creations have been both thoughtful and sparkling.
"Swan Song," created in 1977, was actually the earliest piece on the program, but this brief "conceptual" solo is also very characteristic of Paine in its concision and dry humor. As Paine, in white leotard, tights and bare feet, wafts across the stage droopily, her arms fluttering in a familiar avian manner to the strains of Saint-Saens' music, crumpled newspaper, pop bottles and other bits of refuse are tossed onto the stage by unseen hands from the wings, making a rude clatter. It can be taken as a modern dancer's credo -- this kind of dance and dancer being fit for the ash heap -- but like so much of Paine's work, it lends itself easily to more than one reading.
Along these same lines was another Paine solo, "Yesterday (A Dancer's Diary)," dating from 1981, in which she gives us a droll, day-by-day portrait of a dancer's existence, with its succession of pains, exertions, inspirations and fatigue. In still another category there have been Paine's nonchalant, happy-go-lucky bluegrass numbers; "Patch," set to a medley of country music, seemed to be an anthology of her numerous pieces of this type. It was engagingly danced by Paine and Helen Hayes, the only one of the "Friends" sharing this program.
Another kind of dance favored by Paine has had implicit, if often ambiguous, dramatic content. "Cat's Cradle" (1984), for example, is a solo danced by Hayes with a rope tied to her neck. She manipulates it in sundry ways, dancing with it, under it, around it, eventually loosening the clasp and retreating from it meditatively -- is Paine saying that a dancer's imagined constraints are mostly self-imposed and can be shed, or that limitations can be put to creative use, or possibly both?
In a similar vein were the evening's two other duets -- "Brake" (1984), an enigmatic business in which Paine and Hayes go from languid listlessness to rambunctious waltzing, and "Bedtime Story," in which pajama-clad Hayes, readying for sleep, romps and then changes places with Paine, the fictional heroine Hayes finds in her bedside novel.
Unrepresented on this farewell concert were Paine's larger ensemble pieces, like the memorably poetic "Rain" (1980). She'll be missed, and welcomed the more as a visitor from afar.