Every January the Women on the Way Festival throws a spotlight on the performing arts as practiced by the female of the species. Not that producer Mary Alice Fry has to dig very deep in the field of dance, which is still heavily dominated by women. (For the moment we have to leave the reasons to sociologists or perhaps psychiatrists.)
If this year's second of three programs is any indication, the festival's move from a tiny space on Ninth Street to Dance Mission Theater a couple years ago has blunted its funky edge. Understandably, some of the informal give-and-take that comes when artists perform practically on top of their audiences cannot be reproduced in a larger venue. But more seriously missing were a sense of discovery, the daring of something new in the making, and the need to put big ideas into a tiny space. Given more time and a larger space, artists will fill both and not always with the best results. Maybe that's why so much of this WOW program, which was built around dance-music collaborations, felt so drawn out, despite the enthusiasm and real competence of its dancers.
Standing high above the fray were Molissa Fenley's two solos: Dreaming Awake, set to Philip Glass; and Four Lines, to Jon Gibson. A veteran of more than 20 years of solo dancing though a serious injury and recent residencies at Mills College have prompted more ensemble work Fenley is a master at saying much with little. Unadorned, almost emaciatedly spare, her movements spun long phrases that trailed and curled but were never anything but crystal clear in their trajectories. Every stretched leg and turned arm transformed space into something thinner and more transparent yet completely owned.
Fenley's ability to make us hear the music remains a wonder. She inhabited it completely; her choreography, though meticulously crafted, seemed to flow spontaneously out of the music. Glass is not always an easy composer to listen to, but Fenley makes him so with Dreaming Awake, set to his eponymous piano piece. She roamed inside this score as if it were a home, picking up a rhythmic pattern here and anticipating a phrase there. The conversation between dance and music never stopped, and it was fascinating throughout.
Four Lines, set to Gibson's soprano saxophone, was just as rigorously playful. Each of the four sections seemed to ride a different type of breath; in one of them Fenley found herself close to the ground. By the end of the piece, one had the sense that Gibson (performing on tape) was actually responding to the dancer no mean trick for a choreographer to accomplish.
The rest of the WOW program also offered work that stood out, although for different reasons. Take Goat Hall Productions' Cats, Dogs, and Divas, with libretto and direction by Harriet March Page, music by Mark Alburger, and movement direction by Fry: for some inexplicable reason this mono-opera was performed by six aspiring sopranos, most of them singing more or less on the same pitch. They were quite a sight to behold and to listen to. The subject matter of this very long, very bedraggled affair was the suggestion of father-daughter incest, apparently originally inspired by the Teutonic gods' rather complicated family relationships. It's good for the artists to try a humorous approach to a taboo, but this piece needs lots of therapy. Still, cheers to Fry for taking a chance on it.
The festival also offered an always-welcome opportunity to see Printz Dance Project. The company has performed full-evening concerts of Stacey Printz's choreography for several years. Skirting the edge of jazz, hip-hop, and show dancing and driven by a strong beat, Printz has developed her own following. A beautiful performer, with one of the most eloquent backs around, she can be at once lyrical and aggressive.