Of the four works on Bowen McCauley Dance’s program at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, three seemed to be outgrowths of the same creative impulse: the desire to take a familiar tale and reimagine or reinterpret it.
In the first work, “Before the Fall,” choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley aims to show how Humpty Dumpty came to be on the high wall that leads to his demise. It turns out, in Bowen McCauley’s version of events, that Humpty is an antagonistic bully, so we don’t feel too sorry at the end when all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t help him.
Bowen McCauley’s version of “Le Sacre du Printemps,” the groundbreaking ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky 100 years ago, kept intact his harrowing story of ritualistic human sacrifice. In this case it was the movement and set that received a makeover. Both got a contemporary jolt that made this staple feel newly fresh.
“Fire and Air,” one of the evening’s two premieres, is a depiction of the moment when Cleopatra poisons herself with an asp so as to join her recently deceased lover, Mark Antony, in the afterlife.
The work gets off to a strong start: Bowen McCauley, in the role of Cleopatra, sinks to her knees from a throne and prowls toward the audience with stilted, kneeling marches. It’s a strange image, and one that befits a domineering character who has suddenly been devastated by the loss of her lover.
Meanwhile, in a shadowy pool of light on the other side of the stage, Junichi Fukuda haunts the stage as the ghost of Mark Antony, a quiet presence luring Cleopatra to make her fateful decision.
The trouble with the work is that it has a perfect ending, but the dancing continues long after that moment has arrived. When Cleopatra finally dies from her fatal snakebite, it feels as though the dance has found its resolution. Instead, the choreography keeps going, and Cleopatra and Mark Antony dance passionately together, presumably reunited in the afterlife. This duet is a bit treacly and predictable, and takes away from the potency of the dance’s earlier sections.
Another premiere, “Tableaux de Provence,” made pleasing use of space. The dancers let their pirouettes unravel into big, sweeping ronds de jambe; they bounded on long diagonals across stage; they crowded into a tight circle and then burst out of it. It was finely danced, but the flashes of emotion were too infrequent and too random to keep the work knitted together.