The mostly student audience shouted lusty approval for the performances by the Claudia Murphey Dance Company at George Mason University's Harris Theatre Saturday night. With ample reason. There was much to admire.
The dancing was sleek and peppy, the music pumpingly brisk, the staging polished, and the choreography -- all by Murphey -- eminently skillful.
Is it presumptuous to ask for more? By the yardstick of indigenously produced Washington dance this was a decidedly superior event in most respects. Yet an evening of Murphey's recent work still left one with the feeling that something -- some vital spark of freshness or personal vision -- was missing.
It is 10 years since Murphey took over as head of dance at George Mason, and she's worked more than a few wonders there. The dancers, present and past, who have emerged from her program have consistently been among the area's best. Murphey's choreography took honors a couple of seasons ago in the American College Dance Festival. She has also been having some of the nation's finest contemporary choreographers as artists-in-residence at George Mason, with showcase concerts at the Harris, one of the region's most attractive dance stages.
Among the appealing traits of Murphey's work is that it isn't yesterday's mashed potatoes reheated -- it looks extremely up-to-date and modish. But that's also part of the problem. Post-Modernism has been with us long enough to evolve its own cliche's and formulas, and Murphey's choreography seldom seems to get beyond them -- the walks, pulls, rolls, twists, spins and catches that we've seen so often in other contexts; the aerobic pulsation and gymnastic throws; the fashion-page attire; the whooshing, pounding, synthesized rock minimalism (this concert had scores by Tangerine Dream, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Michel Jarre and Klaus Schulze). The individual works are neatly shaped and physically exhilarating. But the motivating conceptions are elusive and one piece looks and feels very much like the next. In tandem, they threaten to merge into a kind of stereotyped designer choreography.
The program's ambitious premiere was "Heat White," a collaboration between Murphey and lighting designer Dave Arrow, in five parts, danced by two couples to music by Schulze. A program note observed that the piece was "built off of various atmospheric phenomena that occur as a result of the buildup of frictional electricity." I'm not sure what this means or how it was reflected in the choreography, but the lighting -- involving raised and lowered beams on stage plus multiple offstage sources, flashing colors, shifting intensities -- seemed more an exercise in gimmickry than an expressive enhancement. The penultimate section of the dance -- a splendidly executed trio for Dave Esguerra, E'Dior FitzGerald and Mary Beth Flournoy, marked by a folded arms motif -- proved the most compelling in design.