Kelley Donovan and Dancers at the Dance Center in Cambridge. Donovan is a leading light of the local dance scene, and performs regularly both here and in New York; it seems she has been poised for a "breakthrough" in both locales for a while - without, unfortunately, quite yet achieving it. Unsurprisingly, last Saturday's recital gave some indication of why she deserves to indeed break through - as well as what may still be holding her back.
I confess I felt a bit like an interloper at the event, which was clearly a kind of fundraiser amongst friends, and thus had a casual atmosphere, with Donovan herself wandering around in her warm-ups before the show, greeting folks she knew. Still, I'd been invited - after Donovan had belatedly read a positive review I'd given her almost a year ago; I was amused to note on her company website an endearingly blunt post that read, "On another note, I found this blogger review from something called The Hub Review from the ICA Boston show last fall! I did not even know it was out there til a week or so ago."
(I am currently considering changing the title of this blog to Something Called the Hub Review, btw.)
At any rate, the program turned out to be a little casual and funky, too; the sound system needed adjustment at the beginning, and not all of the performances were quite ready for prime time. This was most noticeable in the opening piece, the swirling Within and Between, a 2009 work set to a chunk of Philip Glass; dancer Anna Kharaz confidently gave a fully-fledged performance, but her partner, Sam Wilson, seemed to be newer to the steps - and given that the piece is a kind of out-of-synch fugue for two, this was sometimes a problem.
Next came the premiere of Edge Closer, choreographed by one of Donovan's dancers, Lucy Considine, which purported to represent "the ongoing process of acceptance of life events." Okay - I guess we don't need any specifics! As essayed by an energetic cohort of young women, the dance showed ambition and some promise, but never quite cohered into an individual statement.
There was more punch to the premiere of Oh, beautiful, by another Donovan dancer and aspiring choreographer, Angie Hartley. Here - to the warbling of Elvis Presley at his most "patriotic" - we watched as a woman (Hartley) crawled desperately toward a serene Laura Murphy, done up as a goddess reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty (or maybe one of those "Freedom" statues atop some Confederate statehouse). Hartley's movement had a raw, needy physicality- which played nicely off Murphy's bemused cool; in her notes, Hartley explained that the work was "an exploration of the romanticism of nationalism," but it looked to me more like an exploration of the need for a lip-lock with America (which would have been fine by yours truly). Given the lack of said lock, I'd say the piece needs a bit more of a choreographic climax - still, it was certainly heart-felt, and memorable.
Finally came more of Donovan's own contributions - the solo Vigilant and the group piece What is Stable Shifts, What is Solid Slips (image at top). Vigilant played as a short course in Donovan's favorite choreographic tropes - the keystone of her style is a kind of sinuous pivot that's both sensuously fluid and yet rooted to the floor (if airy elevation is fundamental to ballet, than the ground itself is what grounds modern dance). Again, I felt an intricate structure but not too much development - and I questioned whether Donovan's vocabulary actually communicated an inner state of "hyper-vigilance," as her program note stated (she seemed to be in something more like a trance). Similar issues hovered over the more ambitious What is Stable Shifts - and the piece seemed almost too elaborate for its spare Morton Feldman score. Still, it featured committed, calmly detailed work from a large ensemble - who expertly conveyed the muted lyricism of Donovan's layered variations - and so proved the most satisfying performance of the evening.
In the end, said evening impressed me in many ways - and certainly I'm still interested in Donovan - but I also left feeling a little frustrated. A deep problem for many local choreographers, it seems to me, is that they're stuck in a dated abstract-art mentality - and Donovan, I'm afraid, has a bit of this mindset. She has her own distinctive vocabulary - which is remarkable in and of itself - and oddly, a good sense of structure; but that doesn't seem to lead to a complementary sense of development. And she tends to avoid actual conflict (or actual sex) in favor of "ideas" that even at first blush sound a little dull (in that familiar Cage-by-way-of-Duchamp kind of way). Take What is Stable Shifts, What is Solid Slips - uh, when I was twenty I probably would have found an "investigation" of equilibrium in the abstract really interesting; but today, not so much. Instead I wonder why, with so many women on stage in so much local choreography, I see so little girl-on-girl action. (I wonder the same thing about our local theatre, but never mind.)
Now by that I don't mean some sort of lesbian fantasy devised by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner for the Playboy Channel (and later PBS); I mean something with actual emotional connection rather than merely the consideration of emotional connection, something that genuinely heats up. Or something that gives us some sense of social interaction onstage - to my mind, dance should be a social event for the dancers, but too much of postmodern choreography is by default about isolation (and thus is itself isolating). In the end, I think Donovan has the talent to transcend these limits of the arthouse dance scene - and I hope she does so soon.