The fall series at the Dance Place resumed last night on a decided high note with the Washington debut of the New Dance Ensemble, a fleet, handsome and gutsy chamber troupe from Minneapolis. The program included one extraordinary piece of choreography -- Ralph Lemon's "Boundary Water" -- and three other fine works both homemade and imported.
The event was also the first tangible manifestation here of the National Performance Network, a program designed to help support contemporary dance troupes and get them circulating around the country. The Dance Place is one of 14 presenting spaces chosen for participation; nothing could have demonstrated the benefits of the program more convincingly than last night's multiply rewarding performance, part of a week-long residency for the Minneapolis company.
The New Dance Ensemble, founded in 1981 by Leigh Dillard and Linda Shapiro, is currently making its first national tour with the assistance of the network. The dancers, who include Dillard and six others (apprentice Barbara Grubel and guest artist Michael Engel substituted for two injured members last night), make a technically sharp, stylistically coherent and artistically impressive unit. It's a measure of their caliber that Merce Cunningham has agreed to stage a work for them next season.
Lemon, who once danced with a Minneapolis troupe, has been garnering a sizable reputation in New York, and "Boundary Water" shows why. The piece is set to the "Dankgesang" movement from Beethoven's A Minor String Quartet, Op. 132, which alternates between hymnic serenity and jubilant exaltation. Part of the fascination of the choreography is its seeming incongruity with the score -- four women appear in playsuits, toting towels, oranges and a beach ball, and when the two men enter, they're wearing bikini briefs. Yet from the start, when one woman strolls in, almost somberly, and places her towel on the floor before the music begins, the work is deeply attuned to the score. The movement proceeds not so much to the music as within it, searching out its secret heart.
The piece is abstract but hints glancingly at dramatic content and relationships. The men seem strangely apart from the women much of the time. The second man, who enters crouching behind the first, may be the other's lover, or perhaps an alter ego. As the choreography unfolds, the men return first in slacks then with shirts as well, as if passing through progressive stages of concealing but also revealing themselves. The sexes do interact, but in disturbingly indecisive ways that suggest both attraction and separation. The combination of the seaside atmosphere with the luxuriant solemnity of the movement speaks of emotional crises hidden beneath a frivolous surface. The work appears closely akin to both David Gordon's recent "Beethoven and Boothe" and Paul Taylor's "Sunset," but Lemon's subtle gestural undercurrents generate original resonance.
Post-Modernism of diverse accents dominates the other works as well. Company member Wil Swanson's "Asada" is the most severely formalist in approach, evolving from sculptural formations to brisk acrobatics in mostly interesting ways. The high-energy "Climaxes and Sequels," by codirector Linda Shapiro, manages a surprisingly compatible blend of popular Latin motifs with Cunninghamesque abstraction. Charles Moulton's "Handa Wanda" plays quirky pinball games with a series of clockwork limb and torso tics.
The program will be thrice repeated between tonight and Sunday afternoon.