Suchu Dance artistic director Jennifer Wood is known for her great sense of humor, which is why the opening of her latest production, Astoria, was so unsettling. As soon as the lights went up, dancers fell to the ground, writhed on the floor and then walked like zombies -- repeatedly. We waited for the joke to be up, but Wood drew it out. She wanted us to feel uncomfortable.
The performance was rife with cinematic images. Wearing gray, geometrically printed jumpsuits, the quartet of dancers could have been from Children of the Corn; their exorcist-like movements, straight out of Alien. And huddled in a mass on the floor, they looked like they could have just survived The Hunt for Red October.
After going out on this unpleasant limb, Wood proceeded with her well-crafted plan. She composed an evening of movement that could be interpreted from as many points of view as a good poem or painting, and she did so in her confident, zany choreographic voice.
Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, 2201 Preston
Through March 13; 713-529-1819. $12 to $16
Besides cinematic themes, Wood explored ideas of maturity and love, making Astoria into a commentary on life, or a good piece of theater. Then again, maybe she was just trying to make us laugh. After all, Wood is the woman who named the Barnevelder theater, where her company resides, after an unusual breed of Dutch chicken.
One of Wood's strengths is her ability to create an unusual movement style and then stick to it, giving the dancers a framework in which to express themselves. She took us in and out of creepy-movie mode, but luckily, as time went on, the dancers distanced themselves from its unpleasantness and embraced the happier movements.
Each time the Suchu dancers stepped out of the jumpsuits and into more colorful costumes, they were in their glory, showing off the effort in their movements and working like a unified team before the dance called for them to disperse. In the first lighthearted romp, the dancers crouched down, symmetrically spaced across the stage. In shades of red and pink, they looked like a box of Valentine candy waiting to be opened. As they popped up, the dancers moved like they'd been noticed and chosen for their individuality. Were they leaving behind the dark scenes because they were looking at life more optimistically, or did they just like the colored costumes better than the gray ones?
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Whatever the case, Astoria had moments of brilliance, including the opening of Act II, when one dancer's incessant cough infected the whole stage. That cough led to another and then another, until the entire cast was coughing in unison, finally erupting into a powerful foot stomp, then a dance. This section also included a comic homage to Paris, with the cast gleefully waving and skittering across the stage to music by Moondog, led by an energetic, pregnant Toni Leago Valle.
The final section, danced to Maurice Ravel's "Introduction et allegro," evoked a 1950s big-screen love story. The dancers wore purple, alternately suggesting spiritual reflection and a romp through a field of lilacs, until the troupe of 12 broke themselves off into happily independent pairs.
Astoria gelled when both halves of each pair went about their movements, supported by their partners in spirit, but not necessarily in body. In light of this section of the show, the earlier ones came to represent human struggle -- couples getting along, then not; group interactions working, then falling away. But here at the end, the dancers achieved the ideal, or close to it, descended from above like some kind of angelic blessing. The lights went out on a content cast, as if to suggest good things happen when we least expect them.
After a few moments allowing the audience to ponder these deep thoughts, Wood jolted us into a disco dance encore that was a blast. The stage was overtaken by dancers tracing invisible halos over their heads, making chicken arms and doing funky walks, accompanied by -- of all things -- yodeling music. Nicholas Phillips's lighting hinted at a dance club, fashion runway and Easter church service all in one, adding to the irreverent playfulness that was Astoria.