Five young, attractive, fit and talented performers from the Bay Area, and all they do is complain. That's what you're tempted to think while watching works by the San Francisco-based LEVYdance, whose artistic director, Benjamin Levy, is in his early twenties. Life must not be unfolding as he'd like, for profound unhappiness was the dominant theme of his program at Dance Place this past weekend.
But Levy's work also boasts a sense of assuredness that is surprising for a choreographer just out of college. His dances are full of drama; he pays attention to details such as atmospheric lighting and simple, clean lines in costume design. His choreography is assertive and clear, emphasizing a rapport between the dancers and a large-scale, dynamic use of the body.
Levy now needs to vary his tone. An evening of works about being boxed-in and tense -- even short ones, adding up to a mere 90 minutes, including intermission -- can feel very, very long.
One of the program's strengths was bold set design, which can carry a work quite far, as Levy demonstrated in "Holding Pattern." There was an austere, smartly tailored quality here, from the moment a collection of bare light bulbs flashed on in the darkness. They dangled just feet from the stage floor, forming a bright square cage for the three dancers, Christopher Hojin Lee, Scott Marlowe and Lauren Slater, dressed alike in white T-shirts and gray slacks. This wasn't a cozy threesome; at the beginning, Slater walked up to Lee, close enough to kiss him, and punched him in the gut. Attack positions were swapped, blows ducked and more delivered. Amid the domino effect of the pushing and pulling and lunging, three dancers seemed like a pack of wolves.
Yet while the severe simplicity of the set created a dramatic frame, there was no development in the dancers' interactions. The tussling went nowhere.
The evening's closer, "Violent Momentum," felt like the same work, only with more intensity. While this piece was unflinchingly and convincingly danced, it became lost in its own outpouring of feeling. The dancers screamed silent screams, bared their teeth at each other's necks, gasped and gurgled in mock strangulation. Keeril Makan's score was an array of nearly unbearable squeals and scrapes. Levy's point, as he writes in a program note, is that there's a benefit in purging negative energy. But the overriding impression was of gratuitous noise and overindulged aggression -- a curious statement with which to leave an audience.
The highlight was guest choreographer Adriane Lee's "The Second to Last Person on Earth," a work that left one wanting to see more. Here, four dancers -- the three mentioned above plus Brooke Gessay -- were captive to one of those awkward, constrained social situations we've all encountered, where you'd love to flee but you've got to nod and smile and think of something clever to say. The dancers' smart cocktail-hour attire -- pleated trousers and sweaters for the men, belted shirtdresses for the women -- contrasted with the abandon of their dancing, as one by one they sprang out of their chairs for brief bursts of freedom. Various pairings took place; Slater was the aggressor, though the men reacted queasily to her advances, while Gessay resorted to obsessive hand-wringing. You could feel the agony, differently depicted with each dancer, each offering facets of a universal experience.
Lee and Levy are talking about the same issues -- isolation, hostility, pressure to conform. The difference is that Lee's scenario gave us something to identify with, the threads of a plot that felt both familiar and intriguingly fresh. Levy's works were abstract emotional landscapes, harder to sustain than a scene with distinct characters.
Levy's approach was most effective in "if this small space," a solo he created with guest choreographer Rachael Lincoln. Here, Levy put himself in a box, as he did in "Holding Pattern"; this time it was a square of light projected onto the stage. He jerked, he collapsed, he snapped back up only to shudder and flail some more. Finally, he simmered down, smiling a blissful smile, eyes closed. In the imagination, he seemed to be saying here, one can break out from behind any bars.