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Flash Flashback, 5-9: Current Curran
Into the Deep with Sean... and Company

By Alicia Mosier Chesser
Copyright 2002, 2008 Alicia Mosier Chesser

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. This Flash was first published on March 7, 2002.)

NEW YORK -- Trust Sean Curran to make you weep, then help you forget your troubles, then set you musing and still your heart to peace -- all in the space of 90 minutes on a little black box of a stage. The Sean Curran Company opened its season at the Duke on 42nd Street last night, under the auspices of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project, with three works (two of them premieres) that gleamed with dense, deft movement and subtle emotion. Curran's style, both as a dancer and as a choreographer, is unmannered and unmelodramatic. He tells you in his movement just what he is doing; he doesn't play games, or if he does, he lets you in on them. It's that straightforwardness that emboldens you to go with him wherever he might lead -- which takes you, more often than not, right into the deep.

Take the opening of "From the Ether, With Instinct," one of last night's premieres. Eight dancers in Pucci-colored pants and tops (designed by Curran, from the Issay Miyake Pleats Please Collection) bop and pop to a smooth guitar line from the 1980s Scottish band Young Marble Giants. Every so often one of them stops with feet together, grabs the sides of his or her clingy pleated pants, and grins. Cute. Then the dancing gets crazy: a bit of the old robot move, a still from "Walk Like an Egyptian," and Curran banging the hell out of an air guitar (all over the stage, at rapid-fire speed, I might add) to the YMG's nasty bass line. These are '80s kids! (And in newcomer Blakeley White-McGuire, Curran has found a young Cyndi Lauper -- she's one wicked romper.) The thing could take place in a video arcade.

This might be the '80s -- the time when most of these dancers grew up and bounced around in their rooms to Depeche Mode et al. -- but it's the '80s as an extension of the '50s. Peter Kalivas has a twee, taffy-pulled solo to a Space Age melody; later he gets pulled into a slow, juicy, four-couple swing dance by the crotch of his pants. It's social dancing revisited in the age of The Cure. There are bobby sox in the background here as much as there are hair crimpers and acid-washed jeans. Hints of the Twist and the Swim merge with hints of breakdancing and moonwalks, hinting at a history all of us share: we were all once kids who loved to dance.

The end of the piece is delicious, with Curran in one corner (flailing away again on that guitar) and Amy Brous and Tony Guglietti in the other, hopping on each other's backs and tossing each other around with hardly a contact point in sight -- then all three stand still, they grab their pants, and they smile. The kids from the beginning are now the grown-up dancers on the stage, but they're still kids who love to dance. Curran has a nice way of tossing in something simple, almost as a throwaway move, then tussling with it for a while until it grows into something that ever-so-winsomely hits you where you live.

"Six Laments" (1999) hits hard and deep for a dance that seems so small. Seven dancers, one of whom never dances; Kieran McGonnell's three screens of multicolored squares, on which are pictured a young man, an old man, and a child, and which can be opened like blinds to reveal someone standing behind them; nondescript costumes in the colors of mourning, or simply grief; spare Irish melodies for pipes and fiddles by composer Seamus Egan -- that's all Curran employs in this scenario. But in the movement -- heavily weighted, low-bending, and showing several degrees of tension in shoulders and knees that curve and then stiffen -- there is layer upon layer of life. Midway through, Curran steps into the center and pummels the air with his body, wrestling with ghosts, dancing like a banshee. He wears a short tie, like Jimmy Cagney, whose physique his resembles. Near the end, watching Brous do, without Guglietti, the dance she did alongside him at the start, the weight of the piece is almost unbearable, like a single pipe note played out over the sea.

"Sonata (We Are What We Were)," which had its New York premiere last night, resembles "Six Laments" in some ways, except here, instead of individuals remembering, it's a whole community. This work was commissioned by the Boston Conservatory, where it bore the title "The Only Way Out is Through." The set (by Curran) and costumes (by Emiko Tokunago) are masterful: a simple blue scrim with clouds, dozens of tiny white chairs, and dark gray and navy pinstriped dresses for the four women, banded with bright borders and bright plackets underneath, with pants and tops in a similar style for the four men. They look like uniforms, but each is slightly different -- just as, at the beginning of a dance for the women, they stand in a line facing the same direction, but each one places her hands on a different point on her body. In the same way, in the piece's opening moments, the eight dancers form a tight standing knot, in which they're indistinguishable -- but each person gets into the knot by carefully clasping the hand of the person who got there before him. Hand by hand by hand, they form a ring. It's a small thing, like those bright spots on the dresses, but in the context of the work it glints a little. Even in community, these are individuals, and who they are and what they remember affects the whole.

The music is a chamber piece by Leos Janacek, and for the composer's Czech melodies Curran takes the vocabulary of Eastern European folk steps into his own dance language. The two styles are not perfectly integrated, which occasionally makes the folk steps seem over-determined and the recognizably Curran steps seem anachronistic (even though the piece is set in no particular time, it feels like post-World War I). But this is an ambitious move for Curran, who is best known for (and sometimes pigeonholed as) incorporating Irish step-dancing into his modern dances. It has great promise, seen last night in the way two men would curve downwards out of a line of four who had their arms behind their backs, Prussian-military-style, or in the way stiff poses would fold into loose-armed falls and leans.

One of the best moments in "Sonata" comes when all eight dancers move together in duets that take them all around the stage, crossing and interweaving with each other, with one dancer in a pair sometimes falling out of step -- but never out of the dance. There are technical surprises hiding everywhere in this piece, but Curran never forces you to look at them; a balance held in the midst of a crowd becomes a quiet catapult, and then it's gone. In a beautiful motif, the dancers raise their arms in tilting diagonals, like the hands of a timepiece. At the end, this motif is picked up by everyone at once, but this time they circle their straight arms, at different speeds, instead of tilting them up and down, as in a child's imitation of an airplane or a windmill. We see them in silhouette as the piece winds down: a little village standing on the horizon, each citizen's memories filling up the sky in different ways. It's a modest, gracious work, and another new departure for the ever-evolving Curran.

If I have a quibble with the show it is that "Sonata" -- beautiful as it is -- is not a closer, especially as a relatively brief work that comes after a lengthy intermission. "From the Ether, With Instinct" would be a more natural finale, but that would mean inserting another dance between "Six Laments" and "Sonata," which are too similar in tone to follow each other on the program. What about it, Sean? I'd gladly stay for one more piece.

In addition to those already mentioned, the beautiful, in-the-moment dancers in last night's program were Donna Scro Gentile, Juan Carlos Claudio, Kevin Scarpin, and rehearsal director Heather Waldon-Arnold. Philip W. Sandstrom designed the ravishing lighting. The Sean Curran Company continues at the Duke with performances tonight and Saturday night at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

 

(Editor's Note: For more on the Sean Curran Company's current season, please click here.)

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