There are times when a spectator at a performance is led to wonder whether what one is seeing was worth the incalculable travail, exertion and sacrifice that went into its making.
Such reflections rose to mind at the smorgasbord program called "Dansketches," curated by Nancy Havlik (who was herself represented both as a dancer and choreographer) and presented at Dance Place this past weekend.
The lengthy evening (2 1/2 hours with intermission), comprising eight works by half a dozen choreographers, mostly at the "emerging" level, held the attention of its sizable audience and was graced by the performances of several laudable dancers, including Boris Willis, strong and magnetic, of the Dance Exchange troupe; Monique Staskiewicz, notable for her incisiveness and urgency; and the lithe, lyrical Arden Sweet.
But with a single possible exception, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting a second look at any of the evening's dances, and in some instances a first look was already a trial. The most elementary considerations of formal construction, coherence and lucidity of statement seemed woefully slighted.
But one must think too of what these endeavors cost those involved -- the 14 performers and six choreographers. The years of preparatory physical and mental discipline, the agonizing thought, soul searching and ego investment alone must be beyond accounting. And this is not even to speak of the blind courage it requires for all artists to be constantly putting themselves on the public line.
So was it worth it -- for them and for us? The answer is yes. For it is through art, and art alone, that we isolated human beings can commune with each other about the innermost sentient parts of ourselves, the parts that are almost wholly out of the reach of ordinary discourse and logic. The creative enterprise of dance is a never-ending struggle to give corporeal reality to these deepest responses to life. It is an activity that self-evidently must continue, no matter how many clumsy or inarticulate attempts result along the way. It is only by stumbling through the dark that we -- artists and audiences alike -- can find the path to light.
The sad fact is that there wasn't much luminescence to speak of on this occasion. The exception was the twofold piece, "The Door to the River" and "The Wave," by Cathy Ward, distinguished dancer of the Erick Hawkins troupe and director of her own New York-based company formed last year. There wasn't anything strikingly original about her diptych, but it was a fluently poetic dance counterpart to the exquisite subtleties of Oscar Peterson's jazz pianism, which served as its musical substrate. "The Wave," a sextet, evoked the tradition of undulant water imagery harking back at least as far as Doris Humphrey's 1928 "Water Study," and had some especially nice touches including a surging circle formation that kept looping through itself in witty ways. Among the dancers, though, only Sweet really seemed to get the hang of Ward's rhythmically supple choreographic style.
There's not much point in detailing the insufficiencies of the other works. Almost all of them were underlit -- a blessing in one sense, but mistaken in its equating of murk with mood. "Regeneration," the longest, most complex opus -- a collaboration among dancers Robin Kautz and Stephen Mudd, musician Jim Semark and visual artist Ed Racobaldo -- was also the most dithering and shapeless.
Among Havlik's three pieces, the solo "Toe Hold" was the most effective, given the potent presence and gestural intensity of dancer Willis. The other two -- "Seeing the Sea and Being Seen," and "Chador" -- struck one as incompletely realized workshop exercises. The same could be said for Staskiewicz's "Another View" (in collaboration with Lysa Nicholson) and "Appurtenance." Staskiewicz's solo for herself, "Quiescence Memorial" -- a mini anti-war tract, with the dancer in combat fatigues and voice-overs ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance to excerpts from Nixon speeches -- was at least unambiguous in content. But nothing in the monotonously anxious spasms of the choreography went further than simplistic illustration of the message.
In short, this was yet another case -- there are dozens every season -- of more or less ineffectual slouching toward illumination. The quest, though, can, will, must go forward.