What an unalloyed pleasure it is to watch Sarah Skaggs dancing. She seems born to move. It's obvious she has honed her natural gifts through training and mental discipline, so that her performances are not only captivating in their plasticity, but also are models of refinement, assurance, control and beauty of line.
Slender and very long of limb, she's all honeyed flow. Her movement appears to spring from deep internal impulse that propels her body into whipping curves, angular slices or smooth, delicate ripples. Somewhere in her press kit there's a phrase in quotation marks (her words?) -- "the body singing in space." Clearly, this is her forte.
Her program at Dance Place this past weekend, however, also left one questioning whether her choreography takes us much further than miniature display cases for her seductive dancing. The four recent solos she offered, at any rate, left the issue unresolved.
The New York-based Skaggs earned a BA with honors in a combined dance and drama major at Virginia's Sweet Briar College, where she has since been a visiting instructor. She's been choreographing for the past six years, but was also a member of Dana Reitz and Dancers from 1981 to 1985 and toured internationally with them.
She shares with Reitz a flair for subtleties of dynamics and linear nuance, as well as the ability to combine a look of improvisatory freedom with clarity and exactitude of shape. This was amply evident in the first solo -- "Madame Butterfly," danced to a Puccini aria filtered through rock percussion in an electronic adaptation by Malcolm McLaren and Steven Harvey. The Reitz connection was even more conspicuous in the silent "Primary Anticipation," which had interesting staging and light effects by Harvey and Mary Gearhart. A lone point of blue light and several small overhead fixtures lent the darkened stage the appearance of a nocturnal harbor scene, an impression reinforced by some of the movement imagery, suggestive of the swaying of a floating buoy and the spill and roll of surf. A sudden flash of illumination from a floor bulb gave a nice dramatic accent to the piece's conclusion.
In "Meeting the Maker," a rhapsodic vignette corresponding in mood to the phrase "movin' and groovin' with love" from the Aretha Franklin number that accompanied it, Skaggs danced mostly along a narrow alley of light that ran from stage rear to front. In this dance, as in the preceding two, the choreography didn't quite cohere into a comprehensible whole, but on the other hand, Skaggs' use of movement was never indiscriminate -- a small number of cellular motifs, variously deployed, formed the basis of each piece.
The most impressive work, and the one that came closest to a complete dance statement, was the last, "Force of Circumstance," performed half in silence and half to the last three movements of Bach's E-flat Suite for unaccompanied cello. The appeal of the piece was much enhanced by Harvey's stage design and Skaggs' handsome outfit in red with gold trim, by Annette Zindel. The stage space was defined by three containers in the shape of inverted pyramids, suspended at various heights by thin wires, and filled with sand that dripped from tiny apertures onto circular floor mats. As the sand fell, clouds of fine mist rose from the accumulating mounds, lit in turn by red, yellowish green and white spots. The dancing, marked by spins, jogs and gestural imagery, played itself out around and between the sand spouts, and in its own way seemed a fitting emotional complement to the Bach. Alone among the four works (with "Primary Anticipation" a distant second), "Force of Circumstance" looked like more than an incidental framework for Skaggs' consummate dancing. Here the choreography, in the context of the lighting, costume, de'cor and music, took on a mysterious and poetic life of its own, and left one with the wish to see not just the dancer, but the dance, again.