Lesa McLaughlin & Dancers took the Dance Place by storm last night, rousing a packed house to standing cheers and whoo-woos, the going style of accolade among dance audiences.
McLaughlin, a young dancer-choreographer who's risen swiftly to the forefront of the Washington scene over the past several seasons, is uncommonly prolific. There were three premieres on this program alone, and the evening's other three works, dating from last year, were all new to me. It's gratifying to see an artist who's still a relative newcomer producing so much material so fluently. But the evening also left one wondering if McLaughlin may not be getting ahead of herself in some respects -- letting it all hang out, so to speak, without standing back and asking the hard questions about whether everything she makes is ready for stage exposure.
The surface attractions apparent in her previous work are still very much in evidence in the new things. To start with, there's McLaughlin herself -- a deft, spunky performer of exceptional magnetism. Her company, too -- Cheryl Bedenbaugh, Lori Cope McGuin, Dave Esguerra, E'Dior FitzGerald and Mary Beth Flournoy -- stands on its own as a troupe of admirable spirit and proficiency. The movement McLaughlin designs for them and herself, moreover, seems to pour forth in spontaneous gushes, as if it were being invented on the spot. It's robustly physical movement, colloquial and athletic enough to have lots of immediate appeal.
On the other hand, there's not sufficient originality or control on the formal side of her work thus far, neither in individual phrases nor in the shape of pieces as wholes, for her choreography to succeed as pure movement studies. McLaughlin, in any case, appears to be aiming for other kinds of expressiveness, as one gathers from the titles, gestures, audiovisual imagery, props and other clues to subject matter and content she gives us.
In the most winning of her earlier dances, she was able to bring these things together. In pieces like "Urban Removal," "Nike" and "On Look," movement, theme and imagery complemented each other. The problem with the more recent efforts is that this doesn't happen. The movement seems to be drawn from a fairly constant repertoire of steps, lifts, jumps, poses, spins, lunges and falls, reshuffled through each work without the kind of specific tuning or coloration that would distinguish one piece from the next. As a result, the intended meanings remain unclear.
Hence, one could infer from the slide projections, a program note, the sound collage, spoken words and other hints that "Those Folk," one of the premieres, referred to Charlestown, W.Va., and had autobiographical overtones. The choreography, however, took one no further than that. The same goes for "Laced," a new, silent solo for McLaughlin herself in a lace dress, as well as "Jump Cutting," the other premiere. That the latter had something to say about the effects of TV on contemporary generations could be deduced from its central prop. But aside from a too obvious comment on television as a distraction from sex, it's hard to know what McLaughlin had in mind.
Apart from "Sometimes a Change of Heart," a duet that dealt straightforwardly with the push-pull of romance and kept its movement sharply in focus, it was pretty much the same with the older pieces (the others were "Heedless Hap" and "All Debts Public and Private"). The message isn't getting across, and the medium isn't helping.