A new work by Larry Warren -- artistic director of the Maryland Dance Theater and an exceptionally gifted choreographer -- is always an occasion.
His latest is "Poems for a Poet: A Tribute to Tennessee Williams," which received its premiere at the MDT concert Saturday night playing to a packed house at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre. It's a phantasmagoric impression of Williams -- the man and his work -- and it demonstrates once again Warren's ability to create dramatic structures, characters and atmosphere, all in the absence of concrete narrative.
"Poems for a Poet" is in the dream mode. To the title of the piece, Warren has appended in the printed program a couple of quotes from Williams, including one from "Camino Real" that speaks of "a masque in which old meanings will be remembered and possibly new ones discovered." This seems to describe just what Warren had in mind for the new work, which at the same time combines the two major themes of his past choreography -- sex, in a wide variety of connotations, and the struggles of the creative artist.
At the start, we hear a roar of surf and see a Williams-like figure (in an all-white suit and tie) seated at the edge of the stage. It is Jeff Mace, author and reciter of the poetry that punctuates the performance. By his side kneels a young man in white trousers and a blue T-shirt. As light rises on the darkened stage, we next see the supine bodies of the dancers, like a field of cadavers. The young man wanders among them and they gradually rise, reminding one of Wilder's "Our Town." All the men are in T-shirts and white trousers; the women wear old-fashioned print dresses.
There follows a series of contiguous scenes that suggest, in the manner of a floating reverie, characters and situations from familiar Williams texts. One suspects there are many more built-in allusions than any single spectator will "get," especially in one viewing. In any case, the first is a trio that appears to correspond to Blanche, Stella and Stanley in "A Streetcar Named Desire." But the references are deliberately scrambled further on -- Warren understandably wants a certain poetic ambiguity.
Thus in a later scene we see five bare-chested men, like quintuplets of Stanley Kowalskis, and at one point the woman earlier identified with Stella seems to be trying on a straitjacket, as if she were Blanche.
I'm not sure Warren is "saying" anything about Williams -- it's more a memento than a commentary. But appreciating the work doesn't depend on knowing a lot about Williams. The drama is imbedded in the dynamic pressure of the choreography and its modulations of tempo. And Warren, like Williams, is essentially dealing with universals -- seduction, aggression, loneliness, madness, desire, despair.
The cast of 14, including associate director Anne Warren as the Blanche DuBois figure, gets well under the skin of the piece, in the best traditions of MDT performances. Mace's poetry is a mixed blessing, at times in tune with its subject, at others rather synthetic. The musical score by George Crumb and David Freivogel works well with the material, and Paul Jackson's lighting design is indispensable to the hallucinatory effects. On the whole this is one of Warren's most memorable dances.