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History Repeating

If modern dance was a self-conscious quest to find new forms of expression, why is it so rare to find contemporary practitioners pushing its boundaries? If modern dance was a break from the rigidity of ballet, why has it become a rigid technique all its own? If modern dance was a revolution, why is it stuck in such a rut?

I don't know the answers, but I wish Houston's dancemakers would think about the questions. Unfortunately, the fifth annual Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance at the Miller Outdoor Theatre showed that they're not. The creativity-challenged concert was marked by contemporary ballet, classic jazz and very traditional "modern" danced to the overplayed pop songs from car ads.

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy went the prop-dance route with her premiere of Time Remembered II. In pigtails and pastels, her dancers tried to reclaim their inner girlhood by playing on three giant swings. Musician Joel Stein regressed beyond childhood to his inner caveman, pounding primitively on clay pots. As is the danger in any piece focused on large inanimate objects, Nathan-Murphy hid behind them. Her choreography was too preoccupied with all the different ways the dancers could get twisted up in the swings. But in some ways this was a blessing in disguise: When they were off the swings, the dancers, with the exception of a couple of Weave Dance Company imports, were sloppy.

Hunky boys, dull dancing: The Houston Met's Fly.
Bill Woodford
Hunky boys, dull dancing: The Houston Met's Fly.

The Sandra Organ Dance Company, on the other hand, is known for its very well trained dancers, especially Lisa Alfiere Ballo. But while her performers are more professional, Organ's choreography isn't much more innovative than Nathan-Murphy's. In Double Takes, three couples combine stylized social dancing, classical ballet moves and impressive partnering as they flirt through different relationships. Unlike the best neoclassical ballet choreographers of the day, she doesn't push the form beyond its comfortable limits. "It's all just a little bit of history repeating," went the music by the Propellerheads as the couples took a final turn across the stage. I couldn't agree more.

Set to the music of Lenny Kravitz and featuring the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company, Dorrell Martin's Fly never left the ground. Judging by the screams, the teenage girl contingent of the audience seemed to think it was enough that these men strolled nonchalantly across the stage. But I was frustrated to see four talented male dancers limited by jazz choreography that was so slow, measured and flat.

Jose Luis Bustamente of Austin's Sharir + Bustamente Dance Works harked back to the early days of abstract modern dance in Songs of the Sea, a piece that was sometimes beautiful, always boring, and at one point very odd. In a solo called "Shell," Bryan Green wore a bicycle helmet to evoke the beach treasure of the title. But after all the head-spinning at the festival's B-Boy Jam '99, it seemed that he wasn't making proper use of his equipment.

In Doppler Shift from 1996, Jennifer Wood intrigued with some of the same promise she has shown in much of her early work. In hellish red costumes and Suchu's signature knotted hairstyle, the dancers writhed and thrashed about, picking a body up and then dropping it hard on the floor, and finally coming together in a surprisingly effective line of miserable trudging. The pace was frenzied, the angst was interesting and the score, by Gordon Monahan and Nicholas Lens, was edgy. The experience was like watching a rave gone bad. Even so, Wood would do better to return to the ideas she hit upon in Suchu's concert at TemplO last year and explore the combination of dance and theater that she does so well.

Fly's regularly performed hit Mambo was the crowd pleaser of the concert, though the dancers didn't light up the stage with their usual pyrotechnics. Perhaps the Fly guys wore themselves out at the street-dancing competition Saturday afternoon, or perhaps they're tired of performing the same dances all the time. Kathy Wood was really on to something when she started melding hip-hop, break dancing and physical comedy with traditional modern seven years ago, but the combination won't stay fresh forever without new ideas.

The highlight of the weekend was the premiere of Perhaps by Tomorrow by the new director of the dance department at the University of Houston, Karen Stokes. Choreographed as part of an evening-length trilogy inspired by the changes of the 20th century, the piece is set to both recorded accordion music and the live choral performance of an original score by Stokes herself, based on the texts of Bronislaw Maj, Irme Oravcz and Zsuzsa Rakosky. But most important, Perhaps by Tomorrow was the only piece of the concert to attempt any kind of engaging theatricality. The choreography had variety and intensity, moving from soft, subtle movements to hoppy, rolling, folk-inspired dances to a quirky gestural solo performed to the strange rhythm of the words "I am happy, and I am not." Although poorly costumed in stereotypical modern leggings with baggy, sleeveless tunics, dancers Bonnie Boykin Busker, Julie Clever, Julie Fox, Stephanie Jett, Maria Montes de Oca and Misty Passmore made the most of this rich choreographic material. And the spooky, slow-moving chorus of four women and eerie lighting design by Kevin Rigdon gave the work a sense of doom that made it difficult to look away. Stokes's multimedia work refuses to be pigeonholed in a category of the past -- which is exactly what we need more of in the future.

 
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