It has taken more than 50 years for Lester Horton's "Sarong Paramaribo" to premiere in Washington. The work was featured Saturday in the culminating program of a week of lectures and classes examining West Coast modern dance, with a focus on three choreographers who worked in Los Angeles: Horton, Japanese American Michio Ito and Bella Lewitzky. Together these three represent a little-acknowledged branch in the family tree of modern dance, which is so deeply rooted in dance-centric New York. At the Lincoln Theatre, the "Facing West" program presented surviving examples from these three, as well as the progressive yield of their proteges, validating that as early as the 1930s a great deal of modern dance bloomed outside New York.
"Sarong Paramaribo" is an odd work when seen through contemporary eyes. The 1952 solo, restaged by onetime Horton dancer Don Martin for Kristina Berger, feels unabashedly sensual, a Hollywoodized rendering of, perhaps, an ancient East Asian court dance. Berger circled her hips up and back, her upper torso and shoulders subdued, elbows and wrists cocked like some ancient Buddhist statuary. The choreography's embrace of ethnic exoticism feels strangely remote in these more culturally attuned times. Horton, though, did cull inspiration from a multiplicity of cultures -- Hispanic, Native American, Asian -- and grasped much from his teacher Ito about clarity, simplicity and tautness. These hallmarks of Ito's work were evident in four fleeting solos danced by Dana Tai Soon Burgess and members of his company with diamond-cut gestural precision.
Horton's more familiar "Dedication to Jose Clemente Orozco," from 1953, scintillatingly mined the psyches of a pair of Mexican freedom fighters. The duet, danced by Natasha Diamond-Walker and Leo Gallo wearing bandoliers, vividly portrays a gritty struggle. And the Horton technique, all steely torso and eloquently gesturing legs, daring backward hinges and expansive lunges, proved amply expressive for the compressed emotion of the work.
"On the Brink of Time" paid playful attention to counting, speed and deceleration. Smartly danced by John Pennington, this solo by Horton protegee Lewitzky replicates in movement Morton Subotnick's groundbreaking electronic score from the late 1960s. Accompanying a series of blips, squawks, bleats and burbles, Pennington quirkily modulated his dynamics as if roaming inside an old Pac-Man arcade game. Regina Larkin lent a wistfulness to "Journey," a 1958 solo by Joyce Trisler, another Horton protegee, in a taut yet shimmery performance. Adrienne Clancy's "Light Armor," the only group work on the evening, found kinship in Lewitzky's principles with its architecturally designed structure and strength-dependent partnering. Former Washington Post dance critic Alan M. Kriegsman provided gracious narration throughout this once-in-a-lifetime program.