David Appel stands out among Washington dancers for his remarkable subtlety, control and finesse. As a choreographer, he provokes more ambivalent responses, with work that's simultaneously fascinating and exasperating.
"David Appel and Fish That Swim/Dance," the program he and five collaborators presented at George Washington University's Building K Studio Theatre Friday and Saturday nights, included three premieres. The lengthiest and most ambitious of these -- "Fish That Swim," for Appel and three women, with music by Michael Willis -- was a compendium of Appel's pluses and minuses. On the positive side there was Appel's dancing. The man can move in uncanny ways, interacting with his environment, human and physical, sonic and spatial, as sensitively as litmus. It's clear, moreover, that he can transpose his style effectively onto others, as the performances by Alison Ball, Judy Keefe and Anna Rider demonstrated.
On both sides of the ledger were the characteristic Appel movements, which suggest that the left side and upper half of the body know what the right side and lower half are doing, but would prefer to do something else. They ranged from interwoven folds, twists, ripples, jumps, curls, kicks, falls and jabs to the tiny, delicate probings that are an Appel specialty. Also typically, they included traces of contact improvisation and animal mimicry that Appel inherited from Steve Paxton and Simone Forti, with whose companies he once performed.
The movements per se are interesting for the most part. It's the obsessive reiterations, extended meditative pauses and painfully drawn out inchings and rollings across the floor that induce restlessness. While the mind wanders, one begins to wonder whether what comes next is going to be worth the wait, and the answer isn't always affirmative.
Appel also has a fixation on dancers talking while they dance. One of the more successful of such sequences occurred in "Fish That Swim," when one dancer, moving in place, described her difficulties in learning the breast stroke, while her three companions groveled in prone or fetal positions.
As a whole, the choreography progressed from unison formations into and back out of various segmentings of the ensemble. At an agitated midpoint, the jazzily textured music grew increasingly splintery, and the movement followed suit.
With one exception, all the works seemed more like laboratory studies than finished pieces. The other two premieres -- "Little Tail (Bare Bones)," a whiplash Appel solo with a rap monologue, and "The Well," for a reminiscing trio of women -- were both studies in counterpoint between speech and movement. "Vite Mais Pas Trop Vite," a shoeless soft shoe for Appel with live music by bassist Willis, was a study in finely graded crescendo.
The exception was the amusing "Tuna Tapenade," for Appel and Meade Andrews, with an Ashford and Simpson ballad and more talking as accompaniment. This self-parodying duet about rival movement theories and their reconciliation was the only work that seemed aimed at an audience, rather than an inner circle of true believers.
Exploration of movement qualities is Appel's great strength. But it also tends to be his limitation. Too often his work amounts to a kind of technical navel-gazing that tells us more than we ever wanted to know about navels and not much about anything else.