Lesa McLaughlin put her best foot forward at the start last night, in her concert with her troupe at Dance Place, with a brief, appealing, cohesive new solo that evoked her best earlier work.
"Choice by Choice," the premiered solo, had a score by Bill Nelson that in its dronelike aspects and winding melodic fabric bespoke the influence of Hindu ragas. There were some Indian touches in the dance as well, for instance a delicate, pliant wagging of the head that recurred at various points.
The solo began with McLaughlin unfolding herself from a bent posture, lit by a spot in a corner of the stage. She made a striking picture, in a bright red, black-belted outfit contrasting with the smooth yellow of her hair. Still in general darkness, she moved to a second spot midstage, and then to a third in the opposite corner, the three locations forming an equilateral triangle. Then a more diffused light arose, and the dance spread across the floor. It was anchored, however, by a small number of characteristic repeating motifs -- the wagging head, a deep backward arch with rounded arms, and an undulant side-to-side sweep of torso and arms, among others.
It was the unity provided by this economy of movement, and the clear spatial topography of the dance, that reminded one of McLaughlin's promise as a choreographer. She's been working with her own troupe since 1982, and has since received numerous commissions and toured both in this country and abroad with Lesa McLaughlin & Dancers, as the troupe is known.
The other two, larger pieces on the program, however -- the premiere of "Scene," for four dancers, and a repeat of last year's "Big Surprise," for five -- seemed emblematic of McLaughlin's difficulty in creating intelligible dance structures of a more extended scope.
Both pieces are all over the place, scattershot in means and references, so much so that they are baffling in intent and hard to perceive as integrated wholes. The movement vocabulary in both is similar -- a gamut of athletic lunges, twists, falls and swiping limbs that's become the common coinage of much postmodern dance. It's expertly performed by McLaughlin and her colleagues, but the physical exhilaration per se doesn't compensate for the formal and expressive chaos of the choreography.
The nervous score for "Scene" by Austrian composer Reinhard Weixler includes random verbal phrases -- "95 percent fat free," for example, and "fantastic!," sporadically repeated. One of the women sits in a chair from time to time; the one man (E'Dior FitzGerald) takes instant photos of the others and hands them to the audience; a woman puts her fingers into another's mouth for an instant. Dancers enter and exit, but the dance wends its inscrutable way from one unrelated sequence to another, with no apparent focus or weighting of events.
It's pretty much the same with "Big Surprise," in which dancers drink from a glass passed around, pillows are scattered across the stage, and one woman, having been tossed in the air by the others several times, douses them with a pail of water at the end. What motivates all this, however, remains elusive in the extreme.