Past Imperfect

Sean Welling oozed testosterone as he took the Kaplan Theatre stage last weekend amid smoke, flashing lights and the slick voice-overs of a taped "announcer." From a line of blond bombshells, he grabbed one in an up-to-there flapper costume and muscled her around, an attempt at swing dancing that paled in comparison to Gap commercials. On either side of him, two girls with over-the-top drill team facial expressions struggled through that standard applause trick of all small-time studio recitals: staying on their feet through a series of sloppy fouette turns.

And then the Planet Funk Jam Squad's Dancing Through the Decades actually got worse. Among the dance cliches were bebopping poodle skirts from the '50s, disco from the '70s and, from the '80s, a break dancer and every move Michael Jackson ever made famous. Perhaps most disturbing was Welling's vision of a present and future in which "man reaches for the stars in search of alien life." The close encounter appeared to be with the alienated (not alien) break dancer -- back from the '80s.

If these are the best dancers and the most innovative choreographers in the city -- a sentiment expressed by Jewish Community Center dance committee officials at both the beginning and end of Houston ChoreographersX 6 -- then I want to move.

Planet Funk was no anomaly. In fact, "Dancing Through the Decades" would be an appropriate title for the entire event: Nearly all of the "innovative" choreographers regurgitated steps from the past. Beth Gullege, for example, stuck with the swing theme in a piece called Reminisce.

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Then there was Kourtney Owens's attempt at an MTV video, Inertia Creeps: six lithe, young, heavily eyelined dancers in spandex capri pants quickly striking sexy poses to the bass-driven rock music of Massive Attack and Portishead. Add Ricki-from-My So Called Life look-alike Ray Louis Dones (maybe it was the eyeliner), and the Gen-X effect is complete.

On the drastically more classical end of the "X 6" spectrum was Houston Ballet principal Timothy O'Keefe's piece Lovesick. Perhaps it's unfair to ask for innovation in ballet, but O'Keefe's trio of pining women (played by HB principal Kathryn Warakomsky, soloist Mireille Hassenboehler and corps member Kalah Singer) didn't break new ground either -- except by their very presence at the JCC. It was fascinating to observe these exotic creatures outside their native habitat, the Wortham Center. At the Kaplan, you could get close enough to break through ballet's illusion of perfection, to see their sweat and hear their breath. You couldn't, however, catch their eyes, which were focused above and beyond on grand tier balconies that just weren't there.

Both the contact-improvisational feminists of Weave and former Doug Elkins dancer Jane Weiner have produced pieces of note in the past; here they neither embarrassed themselves nor particularly pushed to new heights. Last year at the JCC Summer Dance Festival, Juliet Hicks wowed them with her multimedia Unknown, Unknown. But at "X 6," choreographer Megan Lyles's Somnanbulum fell into the trap that plagues all of Weave's boring pieces: preoccupation with how many ways the women can carry each other across the stage.

Weiner's Infallible Croquet, a wry little piece about the comfortable distractions of the leisure class, featured an excellent performance by the magnetic Manuel Barra, the curiosity of Chrysalis dancer Joseph Modlin's strikingly long and supple body, and the amusing addition of white-clad croquet players shuffling intently across stage behind brightly colored balls. Still, the choreography itself wasn't on par with Weiner's wonderfully clever and creative work with a cappella voices and (of all things) buckets in Pale Octet, performed last year at the Weekend of Texas Contemporary Dance.

Both Weave and Weiner have captivated audiences in the past, and I expect them to do it again; at least for now, there's no need to pack our bags for lusher choreographic fields. Let's just chalk up "Houston ChoreographersX6" to a temporary lapse in the judgment of the JCC Dance Committee, who mistook a wide variety of the old for something new.

Dance Month at the Kaplan Theater runs through February 11 at the Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, (713)729-3200.

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