At first, the Doug Elkins Dance Company’s recent concert at Dance Theater Workshop looked as if it would provide yet another forgettable evening in the theater. It takes just about two minutes to note what kind of dancers Doug Elkins favors: sturdily – often stockily – built, fleshy men and women with lots of blunt muscle power. There’s nothing rarefied, or otherwise exotic, about this gang. It’s the picture of capable good health, untouched by intensity or imagination. It takes five minutes to absorb the sort of movement Elkins devises: a mix of modern dance, martial arts like aikido and capoeira, hip-hop, and maneuvers from contact improvisation. Once this information has registered, there’s little to seize or sustain the viewer’s attention – unless the dances are about something other than abstract movement.
Elkins evidently believes his work is about all sorts of intangible, emotionally piercing matters. Talking about his choreography in interviews, he tends to refer to “matters of the heart” and “intimacy lost” – terms that evoke works like Tudor’s Jardin aux Lilas, Ashton’s Enigma Variations, Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, and Susan Marshall’s entire repertory. I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t perceive anything of this sort on Elkins’s stage.
Elkins is effective when he takes on smaller and more concrete subjects. In Wrench, he constructs a charming (if uneven) suite set to popular songs of a time more innocent than ours (his parents’ youth, probably). Here he can play off the lyrics. To Burt Bacharach’s question “What do you get when you fall in love?,” for instance, he devises a two-man, one-woman triangle that spells even more trouble than a conventional boy-meets/gets/loses-girl duo. And – since his confused lovers are endearingly adolescent and he’s annexed the charm of nostalgia – he can make good use of rueful affection and knockabout shenanigans, with the knockabout stuff no more lethal than puppies at play. Elkins is satisfying again in the two more-adult love duets (one lesbian, one hetero) of In Winter, Stand. But the full piece is a quintet, and when the five figures gather, Elkins has no communal feeling to assign them and no skill at patterning in space. So things fall apart.