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New Kids on the Block

The choreographer Kraig Patterson finally does a program all his own, and it's a winner.

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Kraig Patterson and Terry Hollis in Patterson’s Roy G. Biv.  

Best known for his sly, good-humored dancing with Mark Morris, Kraig Patterson has also been choreographing here and there, from the big-time (Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project) to the preprofessional (Barnard College Dance Department). Though he has a clear talent for making dances, he’s been unusually -- even maddeningly -- diffident about self-promotion. Finally, though, he assembled a small group of distinctive performers to present a full program of his compositions at the Pace Downtown Theater. While much might usefully have been pared from the proceedings -- whole dances, unnecessary elaborations on material that states its case completely long before it vanishes from view -- the concert proved that Patterson can create dances that are not merely serviceable but intriguing.

He has what looks like an instinctive knowledge of how to keep his stage picture stimulating. The couplings and clusterings of his figures and their relative positions in the space -- these configurations constantly shifting, of course -- are both offbeat and harmonious. His asymmetries make the kind of gratifying sense that symmetry makes in classical art. Patterson also knows how to limit his vocabulary in a given dance or section of one so that the movements he does use are telling. True, he sometimes over-restricts himself to the point that you worry his warehouse of steps and phrases is understocked. On the other hand, he can, like Morris and Paul Taylor, transform mimelike gesture (the prose of choreography) into dancing (its poetry), and this feat lends his work provocative subtexts. In general, he leaves room in his dances for the spectator’s imagination along with plenty of hints to stimulate it. Best of all, his choreography speaks unabashedly from and to basic human emotions. Since a plurality of the new dances enjoying success these days are arid or mechanical circuses, Patterson’s commitment to feeling is especially welcome. To do all this while remaining both weird and endearing is no mean feat.

Roy G. Biv and the school of fish, come up for air (set to a Bach violin partita) is a romp in which peculiar though lyrical flailing expresses a euphoria bordering on sheer silliness. My mate, who obviously attended a more thorough grade school than I, informs me that the name in the title is a mnemonic device for the colors of the rainbow. This explains the assorted bright hues of the sheer tunics that hang from or veil the dancers’ black undies. The school refers first to Barnard, for whose athletic young lovelies the dance was made, and then -- with just the right mix of affection and humor -- to the waftings and visions of schools of modern dance that are now tinged-with-nostalgia history, to their charismatic leaders (Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey) and their ecstatic followers.

Patterson’s recent What a Beauty!, made for White Oak, is another successful -- and more emotionally and technically complex -- dance for a small crowd. People in an approximation of street dress (in other words, us) meet on the run and couple up for fleeting moments. As with many a contemporary relationship, no one seems to expect the connections to last. Then pace and mood calm down and the scene becomes more communal, potential partners sizing each other up, as in the clubs. Wistful moments occur, in which the figures seem to yearn for old-fashioned commitment -- the stuff of romance -- or simply reach out in loneliness for a companionship that forever eludes them, just as they avoid unwanted embraces. The yearning-and-rejection business is prevented from becoming maudlin by a canny timing worthy of slapstick comedy. The dance as a whole tells us two things: first, that we all share a dissatisfaction with the attainable; second, that joy seized in passing is not to be despised. How many new dances have we seen lately that tell us anything at all?


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