Saturday, October 27, 2007

Seán Curran brings it home

The Seán Curran Dance Company takes to the air in "Aria/Apology."

Local boy Seán Curran has definitely made good; his company has moved from paying its dancers with subway tokens to headlining festivals, and he's become known as the go-to man for dance in venues as divergent as Broadway and the Met. His hometown return last night at the Tsai Performance Center made it clear why: the entire program was inventively, energetically graceful, with Curran tossing off both witty and weighty ideas with unpretentious clarity. Indeed, in some ways Curran is almost too facile for his own good; we can feel his sensibility clearly, but he never slows down long enough to build his own vocabulary, which is probably the last, tiny step between very, very good and truly great.

But hey, I'll take very, very good any day; and in some ways, Curran's up-to-the-minute insights mesh well with his sometimes-appropriated moves: he's a kind of poet of "the way we feel now" - that is, with escape hatches in every relationship, community, and even feeling. The dancers in "The Nothing That is Not There, and the Nothing That Is," for instance, are constantly moving from one partner to another, in a series of vignettes with titles like "Our Evenings" and "Words Fail Me"; and while they're often touchingly supportive and empathetic in their falls and lifts, there's also always the sense that the dance is evanescent, that the relationships could at any time disappear. (And somehow the high-modern accompaniment - piano selections from Leoš Janáček - only throws the millennial milieu into higher relief.)

This atmosphere is even more potent in "Aria/Apology," which is danced to a suite of mournful Handel arias interspersed with recordings from "The Apology Line," a phone service in which people can off-load their guilt. The contrast between Handel's transcendent arcs of melody and the flat, disaffected confessions - often of sins as chilling as rape and murder - is strangely disturbing, and Curran conjures a complementary mix of classically-inflected modern dance with odd interruptions and reversals. The piece is certainly powerful, and Curran fills the air with a gorgeously tumbling series of jumps (if he has a vocabulary, it's all about the body in mid-air) - but I had the sneaky feeling he hadn't quite met the choreographic challenge of the unsettling contrast between soprano and answering machine.

Sandwiched in between these high points, Curran gave himself a curious little cameo, "St. Petersburg Waltz," set to solo piano by Meredith Monk. An attempt, it seemed, to encapsulate the life-story of East-European Jewry (who were perhaps born in St. Petersburg? or ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida?), the piece moved fluidly in its tropes from folk dance to prayer, but came off as superficial when sliding from the shtetl to Nazi salutes; it was perhaps the evening's one misfire (although Curran himself was eccentrically compelling in his poignantly comic bowler and vest).

Fortunately, Curran had saved the best for last (it's always nice when it works out that way), "Social Discourse," a premiere to songs by Radiohead's Thomas Yorke. The music's incessant beat seemed to free both Curran and his company - and though one could argue the piece is merely an empty, if brilliantly exuberant, display of technique, somehow I think that's the point - the sense of "how-we-live-now" was more potent that ever in its happy, heedless calisthenics (done to Yorke's mournful observation that "I can see you, but I can't reach you"). The piece also marked the introduction to the company of the virtuosic young Winston Dynamite Brown - a dynamo indeed, even without a real solo - whose fire fit nicely into the company mix, which is already distinguished by the soulful grace of Kevin Scarpin and the clean, classic attack of Nora Brickman. We hope to see more of all three in Mr. Curran's ever-more-ambitious choreography.

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