There's a macho edge to Claudia Murphey's dances that seems specially suited to a steamy summer night. And the four works -- two new and two old -- her company performed at Dance Place Friday had a gritty bravado that made them a welcome relief from the earnest, anemic fare served so often in Washington.
"Vertical Plane" was the more successful, if less compelling, of the new pieces. To the sounds of "The Art of Noise" (much gentler than it sounds, actually), the women play with, test and guard their turf -- three platforms of varying heights connected by steps, designed by Edward Houser -- with big, strong strides and spins. Their psyches are as isolated as their movements (a metaphor Murphey uses frequently). They trust no one until they have to.
Murphey, a Thoroughly Modern Minimalist, uses few steps, and fragments and isolates those she does choose. The dance's flow comes through the dancing, and Julie Baynes, Pam Matthews and Cindy Newland, all skilled performers, had the necessary punch. They need more performances to give some of the more difficult turns and tumbles the necessary speed and smoothness.
While "Vertical Plane" was visually interesting, the other new work, "Steel Ties," had such a strong verbal component it seemed unbalanced. A solo for Rodger Belman, "Steel Ties" could be an incident from the youth of Stanley Kowalski. A taped monologue tells how a 16-year-old beat up his father on Christmas. The language is feisty, salty and rich in imagery -- unfair competition for choreography (the score is attributed to "Richard Price, World Saxophone Quartet," but it's unclear who wrote the words).
Usually in these kinds of dances, the movement shows the subject's inner thoughts and feelings while the words are concerned with action, but here that conceit is reversed. Belman, a terrific dancer who bristles with energy, bashes and jabs but doesn't really have much to do but show off his muscle-knotted back.
The program was completed by two dances excerpted from "Social Aeffects," a full-evening work Murphey first presented last fall. Both work well out of context. The evening began with "Men," a movement essay on male aggression and friendship in the guise of a boxing match for Belman and Thomas Mills; "Part A," originally the opening segment of "Social Aeffects" and consisting of seven very short dances, made up the second half of the program.
In "Part A," Murphey appears in three episodes, each entitled "On the Edge." When the work was first performed, the "Edge" was the side of the stage. At Dance Place, one of the platforms from "Vertical Plane" took the stage's role, so it seemed that Murphey was sunbathing on a pier in a prom dress. Was she remembering the conquests of youth, as her company (Mary Williford joining Baynes, Belman, Mills and Newland) performed not-quite-social dances in very unsocial situations? Or reliving her exclusion from them? Her detailed movements -- precise, kooky and too bold to be called neurotic (a fidgeting foot or a predatory fist) -- provided both connection and incongruity. -- Alexandra Tomalonis