You don’t stick it out as the director of a local dance company for 16 years without a high degree of moxie. Yet even by the going standards, Lucy Bowen McCauley has more moxie than most.
After her troupe, Bowen McCauley Dance, performed at the Wintergreen Summer Music Festival in Virginia last year, she walked up to the man who runs it, Larry Alan Smith, and talked him into being her music director.
Also last year, she got former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove to recite her poem “Ozone” onstage during performances of Bowen McCauley’s dance of the same name.
And as an early tribute to next year’s centennial of Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”), Bowen McCauley created her strongest work to date, a muscular, theatrically arresting view of an Armageddon erupting at the intersection of the Electric Circus nightclub and “Doctor Who.”
Bowen McCauley Dance unveiled “Le Sacre du Printemps” on Thursday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (the final performance was Friday), in a program that included “Ozone.” And Dove. And live music.
It was quite the classy collaborative affair. With her grand ambitions and warmth of personality, Bowen McCauley injected the whole atmosphere with such earnest goodwill that one dearly wanted to overlook the lapses in some of her works. But the eye craves a sense of logic, gestures and shapes that build on one another or gain emotional force through composition and timing. Logic is not Bowen McCauley’s strength. She tends to string together random quirky moves, as in “ReSuitened,” also on the program: backbend, flexed feet, herky-jerky arms. It was a game of Twister that followed the musical beat but lacked a strategy.
Similarly, neither Dove’s poignant reading nor the expansive reach and serene spirals of Alison Crosby’s solo could make “Ozone” whole. Smith’s spacey experimental score for cello, flute and soprano was little help.
But in following the story of sacrifice in Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” and aided by its churning drama and menace, Bowen McCauley crafted a work with sound structure and piercing moments of surprise. Much credit goes to Tony Cisek’s set design, a giant tin-foil moon overhanging silvery mountains, silhouetted against a blood-red sky. That sci-fi cheesiness was echoed in the costumes by Cisek and Chelsey Schuller. Ropes and strips of fur wound around the seven dancers — apocalyptic go-go. Martha Mountain’s lighting lent a touch of mystery. Fabio and Gisele Witkowski played the four-hand piano arrangement as if they possessed the very paws of Fate.
There was a terrific moment when the piano was at a roiling boil and the four female dancers rushed to the lip of the stage, catching themselves just before plunging into the orchestra pit. That moment was repeated in a spectacular finish, as we saw dancer Alicia Curtis sacrificed, thrown toward the pit — or to us, greedily willing it — but caught just before the plunge.
The program kicked off with “Beethoven Bits,” a work by the late Eric Hampton, who was Washington’s own Jerome Robbins. Before his death in 2001, Hampton was one of the most talented choreographers on the local scene, capable, like Robbins, of sharp wit, trenchant character studies and profound beauty. All of these qualities shine in this concise 1993 work accompanied by excerpts from Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126.
Bowen McCauley took on the role Hampton created for himself, as the somewhat kooky, wistful ringleader of a threesome rounded out with Crosby and Michelle de Fremery. Springy, crisp classical technique was all the more dazzling from these winsome women because they were dressed like car mechanics: flat shoes and frumpy trouser outfits the color of pigskin. The art of it was in the unexpected elegance. Nimble, sensitive musicality was a large part of the effect.
Yet the recording by pianist and audible hummer Glenn Gould proved awkward, though through a spokeswoman, Bowen McCauley confirmed that it was Hampton’s choice. I don’t recall it that way, but I could be wrong. It’s hard to pay full attention when you’re busy gnawing your knuckles to the bone in frustration. Thank God the dancers had the good sense to keep quiet.