Lloyd Whitmore, Tish Carter and Pola Nirenska were the choreographers featured in Friday night's "A Celebration of Dance" at the Terrace Theater, part of the Kennedy Center's continuing series, "Washington, Front and Center!," highlighting resident Washington artists. It was a sequel to a similar event last October, but this time the focus was narrowed from six participating entourages to three. The trio of choreographers, however, still reflected broad contrasts in background, generation and style.
Whitmore is a native Philadelphian who danced for five years with Philadanco, among other troupes, and has been a faculty member at D.C.'s Duke Ellington School of the Arts since 1985. Carter's been active on the local scene since 1979, for six years as half the duo New Moves, which she founded with Nancy Galeota, and as a performer and choreographer with other area groups. Polish-born Nirenska, now in her seventies, arrived in Washington in 1951 after a distinguished international career and has been favoring us with her choreographic wisdom ever since; the six dances by which she was represented on Friday's program, including two premieres, were created within the past two years, except one from 1981.
Whitmore's "The Evidence of Souls Not Seen" was a moodily yearning trio set to excerpts from Elgar and Mahler and handsomely danced by the choreographer and two advanced Ellington students, Roger Bellamy and Ronald Willis. The neatly composed piece featured Aileyesque lunges and floorwork, along with an iterated motif of hovering, winglike arms. In "Equipoise," Whitmore partnered the fervent Karin Coleman in a languidly amatory duet to laid-back jazz by Bill Evans. Neither piece showed much originality in movement invention, but both were admirably crafted.
Movement seemed almost incidental in Carter's ambitious, multilayered dance-theater opus, "Myth, Mystery, Dream and Stolen Lightning," which received its premiere as a completed triptych of sections labeled "Beginnings," "Women's Mysteries" and "Endings." The sound backdrop included taped scores by Klaus Schulze, Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny and Richard Burmer, as well as live, original music by Douglas Quin. Carter herself devised the imaginative sets and properties that constituted the most impressive aspect of the work.
Large mirrored panels upstage were the constant frame for the three sections. The first, featuring Carter both moving and speaking, centered around such props as broken eggs, crushed flowers, a skull, a hobby horse and lighted torches, all of which she related both to mundane activities (e.g., attending a gourmet cooking class) and to ethnic creation myths. The second section had Carter and Sharon Wyrrick in blond wigs and long white dresses making acidulously satiric references to menstruation, hairdos, wedding veils, gossip, childbearing and high heels -- in other words, the whole feminist agenda. The last part was set in a graveyard of crosses, with a stylized longboat on a high tower in one corner. Carter went through a series of moltings, shedding layers of garments until she was nude, whereupon she mounted the tower to stand amidships.
The piece is chock-full of provocative imagery and ideas. The problem is that the choreographic underpinnings are too frail to sustain such heavy conceptual baggage.
It came as no surprise that the strongest entries choreographically were those of Nirenska, whose characteristically expressionist dance language has been honed to a fine point over decades of experience. She also knows how to wrest powerfully resonant performances from dancers who seem to transcend themselves on Nirenska's behalf. "Out of Sorts," the first premiere, was only a mildly compelling study in vacillating vexations, though persuasively danced by Sue Hannen. Far more telling was "I Found My Grandfather Dead," incisively danced by Carter to Schoenberg piano music, with a rocking chair and a picture frame as key props in the mini-drama.
Among the other pieces, the wildly thrashing "Web," performed by Shawn Womack, and the seductive "Woman #1" and acutely tormented "Shout," both danced by Wyrrick, reaffirmed Nirenska's special gift for pithy, intense solos. Most gripping of all was the older sextet "Dirge," to music by Bloch, inspired by harrowing memories of Holocaust victims and wrenchingly danced by Hannen, Jeff Bliss, Debra Caplowe, Amy Dowling, Rima Faber and Jan Tievsky.
The single crucial drawback to the program was its self-defeating length -- nearly three hours. The Whitmore portion was fine as it stood, but the Carter piece was too long for its own good, and three Nirenska pieces would have made their points more effectively than six. This kind of overloading was a disservice both to the artists and the audience.