Fresh "Horses"

Dana Lawton and Jia Wu kick off the dance season with a strong program

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True dance: Dana Lawton's dance pieces are direct and evocative.
PHOTO BY LIZ PAYNE

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Some choreographers pack enough material into an hour of dance to leave you more satisfied than those who take twice as long and say less. Such was the case with "18 Virgo Horses" (Sept. 16-18), a double-bill by Dana Lawton and Jia Wu, who earn their rent money teaching at Saint Mary's College in Moraga. The old saying that inspiration wedded to craft makes for good art came to mind as I watched Lawton and Wu's four pieces at CounterPULSE last week. The evening made me glad that the dance season has started again.

In her new solo Del Mar, Lawton opened the program with a tribute to 1950s-style Hollywood bathing beauties and cowboy singers. Toy horses encircled a round swimming pool in which Lawton, encased in a demure Esther Williams swim suit and aqua cap, paddled, floated, and dreamed as she listened and responded to lyrics about an old house and a boy and his horse. So simple, so evocative, so delicious.

Horsethief Lake is a state park in South Dakota. I am not sure if and how Lawton's eponymous piece for a quartet (Michael Armstrong, Jerry Lin, Jill Randall, and Chantal Sampogna) related to that piece of geography. The work explored memory, less as never-never land than as something grounded in muscles, to be passed from one body to another. Over the course of its three sections, Horsethief ultimately lost some focus and began to needlessly meander. But it demonstrated how, in skilled hands, simple gestures — wafting arms, and grabbing at one's chest — can undergo eloquent mutations. The piece also introduced Lin, who is potentially a spectacular dancer, if he doesn't allow himself to descend into mannerism.

Continuity is not what choreographer Jia Wu seems after, at least not within anything resembling linear logic. Yet the five sections of Between You and Me II, a highly imagistic quintet (Jackie Angelo, Lin, Marissa Pfaff, Vera Schwegler, and Hailey Yaffee), rubbed against each other to arrive at a jumbled but real coherence. The piece's attempts at absurdity, however, did not completely convince.

Going from Ukrainian folk music to Satie and Portuguese fado, Between started out looking like mourning ritual. The dancers were clad in black from head to toe, but as their outstretched arms and formal pacing disintegrated into spastic shakes and hops, tragedy was turned inside out. In other sections, the doll-like dancers wore tutus that were color-coordinated with balloons, while Lin streaked in as an impostor. They looked like cartoon figures. The audience loved the humor; I thought some it sophomoric.

The evening closed with Lawton's other premiere, Inside. Though it took on one of dance's oldest clichés — the travails of one-to-one relationships — her take on it was fresh and rich and rang true. It opened with Armstrong and Jennifer Smith in what might have been a wedding dance. As they performed in silence, their bodies seemed to melt into one. Then wave after wave of rejection and reconciliation enmeshed the couple in an ongoing turbulence. Anything — a touch, a glance, an imitative gesture — could provoke an explosion from one or the other, yet this stormy affair was also mitigated by moments of tenderness and calm. As Michelle Beauchesne on cello and Sean McCue on guitar provided sensitive musical commentary, the piece presented one surprise after another — you never knew who was going to do what to whom.

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