Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Makin' it Snappy

An image from "String Beings."

About two years ago, with the opening of the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston underwent what I immediately termed a theatre renaissance - and I'm beginning to think the same thing may be about to happen to the local dance scene. There's a new and viable (though problematic) performance space at the ICA; the Boston Ballet is stronger than it's ever been, with a hot house choreographer; we're still a regular stop on the national circuits of Mark Morris, Alvin Ailey, and a number of other companies; and most excitingly, local troupes are beginning to make national (and even international) names for themselves.

One such company is Snappy Dance Theater, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary with an unprecedented (for a local troupe) two-weekend run of its newest work, "String Beings" (along with a number of audience favorites), at the Calderwood Pavilion through June 10. That any local dance group should have survived, let alone flourished, for a decade is indeed cause for celebration, and many of the virtues of Snappy's ensemble and collaborative working method (under the guidance of Artistic Director Marsha Mason) were evident in the evening's program. Above all, Snappy Dance is fun, in a smart, cleverly acrobatic way - think of them as a less jock-y Pilobolus and you're close to encapsulating their style. As it grew, however, the troupe edged away from pure dance and toward a mix of dance and theatrical techniques, often aimed at younger audiences (this approach bore amusingly ghoulish fruit in their famous Temperamental Wobble, which took Edward Gorey to the circus). Lately this exploration has led them toward the intersection of dance and technology - with "Lumen" (2005), for instance, Snappy aggressively explored the effect of light on the dance experience, and now in "String Beings," they have developed an often-haunting, sometimes-frustrating integration of video, software, and shadowplay.

To my mind, "Lumen" (which closes the first half of the current program) still stands as possibly the best thing Snappy's ever done. Set to a propulsive score by Wim Mertens, the ensemble's acrobatics are transformed by startling shifts in lighting (the design is credited as a collaboration with Joseph Levendusky), which alternately throw the Snappies (can you think of a better term?) into silhouette, shadow, or cornea-burning, contrasting color-fields. The piece opens with one of the troupe's most inspired gambits - like a beam of light physicalized, dancer Bonnie Duncan walks up Tim Gallagher's back, then over his shoulders and down his chest (after which Gallagher, no doubt, heads for the chiropractor!) - and closes with another (the group caught in mid-air in a stroboscopic snapshot), and in between it's almost pure pleasure.

The rest of the program's first half, however, was amusing but not always that challenging - the group's collaborative process has clear limits, in that it tends to lead the dancers into comic "bits" and cute conflicts rather than deeper ideas and designs (this is the downside of being "unpretentious"). Still, the decade-old "Limning Twilight" (above left) still intrigued in its evocative minimalism, and both "Four Fourths" and "Odd Egg Out" had their moments.

"String Beings," of course, was what everyone was waiting for - and in at least one regard it did not disappoint: the piece conjured a kind of ghostly digital "space" in which footwear and software indeed interacted (an effect which much of this kind of "performance" fails to evoke). The dancers moved behind a screen on which were projected images of their own maneuvers, "scrambled" by Jonathan Bachrach's software, which transformed them into scribbled figures of vigrating string (hence the title). The haunting results hinted provocatively at the edge between past and present, and the unseen ramifications of our every action, however small - most excitingly, this was a space that literally responded to the dancers, as if the very air around them were being choreographed. Alas, the dance itself didn't always keep pace with its environment's potential: the Snappies sometimes reverted to just horsing around (it was clearly time to leave the kid stuff behind), and the reliance on such props as tethers and tightropes (to explore the idea of "string," I suppose) felt a little labored and obvious. More apropos was the shadowplay on a hanging, glowing sheet, which was better at making concrete the piece's dialogue between action and information.

The choreography did boast at least one transporting moment - Artistic Director Mason, in thrall to her integrative theme, pulled her musicians right up on stage, and even drew her violinist into the dance. The preternaturally calm Lucia Lin carried on playing even as she was lifted onto the dancers' shoulders and then solemnly borne across the stage (when she's not surfing the Snappies, Lin can be found playing in the BSO). It was an elegant, meditative finish to the first of what one hopes is a new line of technology-focused work from Snappy Dance.

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