There were few words in the printed program for the debut of the Blaska Dance Theater at St. James Episcopal Parish Hall last weekend. The movement vocabulary for the 1 1/2-hour premiere of Gregory Blaska's "step, step" was sparse. The cast included only two dancers -- Mark White and the choreographer. Yet a rich context was created by the performers' great, and at the same time restrained, coordination and because the choreography was intimately wedded to the space in which it was shown.
Blaska's dance is in three sections. The subject of all is an encounter between two men. There is progression from one part to the next. The first meeting, called "Thicket," occurs in a soundscape of insect chirpings and bird calls. Visibility is low, and although the two dancers start from almost the same spot, they don't meet for a long time. "Path," the second part, shows them together, in close proximity until, suddenly, contact is broken. The water sounds in this section suggests waves breaking on the shore, a shower turned on full stream and the tide lapping against an embankment -- or perhaps bath water rocking in a tub. Finally the two men meet again (is it the same pair?), but their roles aren't the same. The taller, more committed of the two had worn tights and a tank top, and the one who was more aloof wore a brief tricot. At the end, the cut of their costumes is reversed and they appear more equal as initiators of action. This third part, "Hallway," occurs to a humming sound like that of distant traffic or an air conditioner on low, then it changes to the cracklings of a fire. In each section of the work, the sound increases in volume with time.
Motion ranges from nearly imperceptible to, at its fastest, slow. At the very beginning only the shadows betray that the two figures, in embryonic crouches on the ground, are gradually straightening and rising. There is much drawn-out stepping as the dancers create trails across the stage. Exceptions to this pacing occur in "Path," when the dominant dancer, standing behind, slaps his outstretched hand against his friend's to keep it raised, and in the distinct dip the two execute before each turn to recross the stage.
Of course, this work is more than a study in protracted dynamics. The erotic implications of the movement are strong, and one nearly mimetic sequence could be taken as mutual undressing. More subtle are the non-secular allusions. The slowness of the proceedings makes them seem not just dreamlike but ceremonial. That this piece was staged on church grounds isn't accidental, nor, certainly, is the fact that acts are repeated facing the section of the audience on the opposite side of the hall. Blaska, through imitation of nature and stylizedrepetition, may be trying to create a sacred rite.
The performers were utterly concentrated in posture and facial expression. They have strong, smooth bodies and use their features like masks, letting character seep out from under the surface. The taller Blaska was the initially stronger figure, possessive of the choreography as well as trying to motivate White, whose character was hauntingly remote.