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Flash Review 2, 4-1: Melanging
New Steps, Some Stumbling from Carr

By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2003 Vanessa Manko

NEW YORK -- Two moods of Darrah Carr Dance were on display this past weekend at the Merce Cunningham Studio, where the congenial "Passage" and the premiere of the more bold, brazen "Melange 445" were presented. Darrah Carr seems to be quietly making a name for herself in the New York modern dance world with her singular blend of Irish-step-infused modern dance. In fact, she has explored her interests in dance in general and traditional Irish step dancing through a variety of vehicles -- presenting her research on Irish step dance at Congress on Research and Dance conferences and as a freelance writer for Dance Magazine and contributor to this publication. Yet, it is her spirited, inventive choreography that has garnered her much praise. Filled with open, daring jumps as well as more touching, tender moments and always presenting a dash of the Irish charm of step dancing, Carr's works both brim over with ebullience and pay sincere tribute to her heritage.

"Passage" is a true testament to the choreographer's increasingly signature style. A somber and reflective work which premiered last year (when it was also reviewed here), it is inspired by the traditional Irish song cycle of goltrai, geantrai, and suantrai songs (sad, happy, and sleep songs respectively). It also highlights the swiftly vanishing Irish traditions of keening to mourn the dead and mouth music. This is reverent and ritualistic piece, particularly in its more serene moments. As dancers emerge from the wings, walking slowly onto the stage, a sense of community is established as they perform tender lifts: a dancer curled into fetal position and carried by another, for instance. This same sense of levity is also apparent in the mournful grand plies that become a movement motif in this work; dancers' hands slowly push their knees open, reifying the power of this particularly poignant pose. The dance's moody and dreamy character is underscored by Amanda K. Ringger's lighting design of lace-work patterns across the floor and the watercolor-inspired costumes by Cindy Capraro. Carr has also built a sense of passing or travel into the piece, as dancers move upstage or walk over each other, a leg softly skimming over a dancer on the floor, representing the dead or the past.

The dancing for "Passage"'s happy (or geantrai) songs is celebratory and energetic. Dancers spring and flock with an infectious joy and radiate a surety and confidence throughout the intricate fast-paced pure modern dance, which is interspersed with the fancy footwork of Irish jigging. And the acrobatic, traveling jumps send the dancers splaying out in fantastic leaps and helicoptering, whimsical twirls across the stage, conjuring up images of wood sprites. To see a work like "Passage" first at WAX and now in the larger Cunningham Dance Studio is to see it transformed. The Cunningham's cavernous, deep stage space lends credence to the piece; Carr's choreographic structures sparkle with a new clarity and the dancers, ever more precise and exacting, relish the open space. They are compact, strong and capable performers, each impeccably trained and able to emote the range of moods expressed in the choreography.

The new "Melange 445" is an amalgam of step and tap dancing set to French Canadian and Cajun music, a feisty work that marked an aesthetic shift in the evening's performance. With its bold black and white costumes of pantsuits and slitted skirts, along with boxes and chairs set up in the vein of a cabaret review, there is something decidedly 1930s about this piece. It even invoked the air of a French film noir and had a touch of the racy, bawdy dance review a la "Chicago," all of which can be deliciously fun. The fluorescent green flourishes that accented the costumes were a sly wink to the Irish influence on the work. Ultimately, Carr is experimenting with or grappling with the idea of rhythm as something that is both heard and seen -- that is, heard in the step and tap dancing rhythms and seen in the pure modern dance sections of the piece. Such an idea is compelling and offers an interesting theoretical jumping off point from which to create a dance, yet, somehow, the "melange" or "blended" aspect of this piece gets lost precisely because the step and tap dancing sections are so distinct from the modern dance sections. These in turn are injected with a vigor that seems to squash or squander Carr's skill at delivering up more luscious, calming movement like that seen in "Passage."

"Melange" opens to the sound of stepping as two dancers work out rhythms through some intricate heel and toe stomping and scuffling. Like the call and response of a jazz duo, these two play off each other and attempt to outdo each other, eventually falling back into rhythm. But, beyond the stepping that takes place on the boxes, pure modern dance also infuses this piece. And this is more adroit, vigorous and sometimes overly aggressive choreography. At times the movement is harsh and fast and the shapes presented get muddled. When a dancer scrambles, stomach to the floor, crawling upstage, it's hard to make a connection between the step and tap dancing that precedes and follows this moment. Yet, the piece is not without its fine moments and witty sections. The sharper more jagged-edged aesthetic Carr seems to be striving for here certainly comes across. As dancers dressed in black evening gowns line up three chairs and sit on them like bored, easily displeased spoiled Southern debutantes, they criss-cross their legs in a snotty, stuck-up series of staccato poses which are perfectly choreographed and in sync. This is Carr being cheeky and saucy and such moments take the squeaky cleanness of Irish stepping to a new, fun level. Carr's stepping solo is quite good as well; her lightning-quick feet and coy, flirtatious looks at the audience, which are emphasized by the whipping of her large ponytail, are a delight to watch.

In short, "Melange 445" has a sexy, sleek tone and while certainly stemming from a commendable idea, loses its punch a bit at times. The fine cast of dancers in each piece included Breezy Berryman, Amanda Callahan, Carr, Kristina Kirkenaer, Claire Malauias, Jennifer Singer, Tehri Miller, Tara-Marie Perri, and Cara Surico.

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