It's been said before, but it's worth repeating --
Improvisations Unlimited, now in its ninth year as a resident troupe at the University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the most consistently exciting dance companies in the area. Nothing could have clinched the case more convincingly than last night's splendidly balanced program at the university's Studio EE Theater, featuring the premiere of Kei Takei's "Flower Field."
For those who may be just tuning in, the troupe, now numbering eight dancers, engages in a wide range of activities including workshops, residencies, children's performances and out-of-state tours. Two main sources of its strength are the astute direction of founder Meriam Rosen -- performer, teacher and a fine choreographer -- and an impressive repertory that's been built up by successive commissionings of significant choreographers both indigenous and visiting.
Takei's "Dreamcatchers" of 1980 was one of the earlier glories of the repertory. Now Takei -- in residence this semester as guest faculty at UMCP -- has fashioned a remarkable new opus for the troupe in "Flower Field." In common with "Dreamcatchers" and other Takei works including her multipartite "Light," it's imbued with a sense of primeval ritual. Takei has cast Rosen and musician David Freivogel as the leading celebrants of the rite, and the rest of the troupe as their acolytes. All are attired (Takei designed the costumes and the set) in black karate-like jumpers, except that Rosen's costume has touches of green, and Freivogel's, of white -- metaphorically, the colors of life, death and vegetation. The dance develops slowly, in repetitive, overlapping layers, to the accompaniment of Rosen's chanting, Freivogel's percussion and a taped background like a howling, rattling wind.
Among the layers are ensemble passages marked by chopping, swinging, pulling gestures, often suggestive of agricultural labor. There's an erotic duet at one point, and a combative one at another. Gradually, Rosen decorates the dancers' bodies with bits of green fabric; then she does the same for a 3-by-3 square grid of cords that bedecks the stage, like a field pieced for sowing. Toward the end, Rosen litters the grid with green blossoms, but before that happens Freivogel, until then almost ecclesiastically serene, undergoes a violent seizure, reflected in the movements of the entire group. It is as if the piece is saying that it takes not just love and hard work, but agony, struggle and bitterness to bring forth flowers from sullen earth.
It's a beautiful, powerful work, radiant with the mythic universality that is Takei's special gift. And like a living plant, it seems not to be "constructed," but to grow organically. Freivogel's score is in perfect concord with the choreography's purposes, and the troupe's performance glowed with conviction.
The improvisatory "Sets" that opened the evening, demonstrating the concepts and techniques that are the basis of the troupe's work, seemed more shrewdly organized than on previous occasions and afforded good insights into the relationship between pure invention and formal constraints in this kind of choreography.
Also on the program were Jerry Pearson's ingeniously patterned "Zen Exercises for Limbs and Pins" and Don Redlich's wittily expressionistic "Where Now, When Now?," a charade about the frenzied chaos of contemporary living, both of them neat counterpoints to the Takei.
The program repeats nightly through Saturday, with a matinee on that day as well.