Sometimes a dance performance is just a dance performance. Sometimes it's also a reunion, a return to roots and an affirmation of strength. Saturday's performance of Eric Hampton Dance at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville went a step beyond even that, reminding the sold-out audience of both the ephemeral and the eternal nature of art.
Hampton, as many know, is a longtime member of the local dance scene who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1997. He was at one time a resident choreographer of the Washington Ballet, then head of his own studio and a respected teacher there as well as at the Maryland Youth Ballet. He founded his own dance company in 1991. Along the way he nurtured countless students toward professional careers, both in his teaching and in his choreography, so sensitive to music and so canny in its boundary-breaking blend of ballet and modern dance.
Hampton spends his waking hours in a wheelchair and has limited movement only of his head and eyes. Not only is he still working, but his influence on young dancers--perhaps his greatest legacy--is still felt. Though he can no longer speak, his voice, in all its wit, irreverence and warmth, can still be heard.
This was most apparent in the haunting "Nocturne 1," a brief threesome by Hampton using the music of Chopin's Nocturne No. 17 in B. It was last performed in 1986 at a student recital, where the leading female roles were performed by Alison Crosby, now a busy local dancer, and Julie Kent, currently a principal with American Ballet Theatre. Both were Hampton's students, both were exquisitely showcased by his work, and both have gone on to rewarding careers. At Saturday night's revival, one saw two new young dancers similarly hinting at professional promise.
In fact, as one Hampton follower in the audience noted, in his highly nuanced, emotionally reined-in ballets one can often witness a neophyte becoming a ballerina.
So it was with Emily Beeny and Joie Meffert, students at the Maryland Youth Ballet. Meffert is slight and wispy, with lovely legs and feet. Beeny, by contrast, is of regal height, with dark eyes you could drown in and a surprising softness tempering her grandeur. Both were almost more than their love interest, Peter Stark, could handle; in the "Les Sylphides"-like role of the dreamy, solitary poet, he was believably bewitched by the two young women vying for his heart. Hampton worked a resonant spinning motif into the dance, echoing the man's bewilderment and lack of direction. The women circled him, whirled him round and round, waltzed him to the point of collapse, and finally left him alone in his own fading circle of light.
That this gem was brought back to the stage after so long (14 years is close to an eternity in terms of resurrecting a dance, from memory and a single film) is a testament to one of Hampton's most ardent supporters, Harriet Moncure Williams, who directs all Hampton rehearsals. That it still pierces the heart with its simplicity and melancholy and profound humanity is a statement of Hampton's undiminished genius.
This was just a 10-minute sliver of a two-hour program, featuring two other Hampton works, "Brief Encounters" and "Two for Two," and a piece by Alvin Mayes for his duet team Karen & Alvin. "Brief Encounters" reunited several members of Hampton's company--Crosby, Pam Matthews, Tony Powell, Natalie Moffett Smith--as well as Stark. Here, using Scriabin preludes, Hampton brought out tenderness, rough edges and ultimate dependency in various couplings and uncouplings among the dancers.
Hampton's humor--at its best expressed in musical counterpoint--shone in "Two for Two," in which Crosby and Powell romped through a skirt-flouncing duet to what sounded like a jolly pirate escapade on the stormy seas (Paul Hindemith's Andantino and Allegro from "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber").
I wouldn't want to top something like that, yet Karen & Alvin were in the unfortunate position of having to try. They didn't come close with Mayes's "Embraceable You." A nostalgia trip as seen through the eyes of an older woman (Josephine Darner), it had several affecting moments. The luminous Karen Bernstein, Mayes's partner, has a silken quality that was particularly effective here. Accompanied by tunes such as the title song, "I Remember You" and "Sweet Georgia Brown," the work was several steps along the way to a hit. But it sorely needs tightening. Each segment--the older woman's silent reverie, Bernstein's dreamy solo, her duet with Mayes, and then Mayes's with Darner--sagged in the middle for lack of new ideas, and the relentlessly wistful nature of it became stifling.