The much-heralded Doug Elkins Dance Company, out of New York, made its Washington debut at Dance Place Saturday night before a packed and vociferously ecstatic house. Explosive energy, idiomatic pastiche, irreverent whimsy and a certain gleeful flirtation with anarchy were the hallmarks of the event. They were sufficient to make it a memorably lively occasion, if one perhaps somewhat short on durable substance.
Elkins and his peppery troupe were seen earlier this year in an installment of public television's "Alive From Off Center" series, capering on the streets of Manhattan in a segment brilliantly directed by Mark Obenhaus. Streets, cabarets and TV screens are the natural grist for Elkins mill. He likes to call himself a "style thief." Some sense of his cheerfully flagrant eclecticism can be gleaned from the program bio of one of his excellent dancers, David Neumann, who has worked as an actor under such directors as Peter Sellars, JoAnne Akalaitis and Lee Breuer, and whose movement studies have included "Afro-Brazilian and West African dance, karate, break dancing, ballet, contact improvisation and the occasional modern class."
All these ingredients and not a few others were visible throughout the three pieces of the evening, recently choreographed by Elkins, by his own account, in collaboration with his dancers: Neumann, Lisa Heijn, Susan Moran, Ben Munisteri, Lisa Nicks, Allan M. Tibbetts and Jane Weiner.
"Cerca de La Escuelita," for instance -- named for an offbeat New York nightspot -- is a kind of get-down dance party, described by Elkins as a glimpse of current couple dancing, club styles and "gender treachery." The dancers wander casually in and out and converse with each other on the sidelines, wearing crazy mix-and-match togs as unisex as the partnering liaisons of the dance. The sound score alternates between salsa and David Byrne numbers, except for a hilarious patch when "Maria," from "West Side Story," is satirically limned by two women, tossing and spinning each other and sassily twirling their hips. The whole thing culminates in a unison salsa formation. Sections of the piece are marked off by blackouts, a device that recurred in the evening's finale.
Ken Walicki's collage score for "just a dumb dream in a foreign bed" begins with a shriek followed by a loud, protracted snore, and not long thereafter, a brief bit of liturgical chant in Latin. The choreography, for six dancers in white, runs through gymnastics, rubber-legged eccentricities, abrupt squats, hand springs, lifts, flips and dives to the floor, as well as familiar break dance spins and falls. Twice the audio is interrupted by a man's voice ominously intoning, "America has a very serious problem," punctuated by a repeat of the brazenly raspy snore. Just before the end, the piece quotes a celebrated passage from Paul Taylor's "Esplanade" in which one dancer hops blithely over the prostrate figures of the others -- in this case, though, he's tripped into an ignominious spill on his last hop. The piece ends with everyone on the floor muttering disconsolately.
"The Patrooka Variations (Conspiracies of the Seduced)" -- the key title word sounds like an amalgam of palooka and Petrushka -- begins with a stunning solo by Elkins that includes whole body shudders, sharply angled staccato footwork, floor splits and break dance head-spins. Excerpts from "Carmen" and flamenco numbers fuel a flurry of mock-melodramatic acrobatics and lunges to the knee. The "Habanera" is danced by two men in the hip-hop mode known as electric boogie, their arms snapping in snaky undulations that at one point are made to eerily resemble Odette's winglike flutterings in "Swan Lake."
All this suggests that Elkins is engaged in doing for the vernacular dances of the past two decades what Twyla Tharp earlier had done for the pop and social dances of the '40s and '50s -- siphoning their look and spirit into the postmodern flux. The pacing and articulation of Elkins's choreography -- the sense of sudden zooms and rapid-fire cutting -- also bear the stamp of the MTV generation. In a way, these pieces of Elkins are like fast-food pizzas -- all with the same underlying crust but a mongrel variety of toppings. The dancers' skill and infectious companionability make them instantly enjoyable, but one also has the frequent feeling that there's less here than meets the eye; more mode than matter. And their ramshackle quality rests on a trade-off -- between spontaneity and surprise on the one side, and identity and coherence on the other -- that I don't think Elkins has comfortably mastered in what we've seen. On the other hand, he's clearly a precocious and witty talent who warrants close watching.