American modern dance is often like a monologue. Fans typically spend an evening watching as a lone choreographer gives his spiel. But then there are the repertory companies.
There aren’t many of them yet, but when a group like 10 Hairy Legs performs, as it did on Nov. 9 in the Theatre at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, the scenery changes and styles switch abruptly. Viewers are whisked from choreographer to choreographer; and sometimes it feels as if everyone is talking at once. Ideas ricochet, and the atmosphere is exhilarating.
The program offered three company premieres — “St. Petersburg Waltz” by Seán Curran, “Bathtub Trio for Three Men” by Cleo Mack, and the familiar duo “Heaven’s Dust” by company director Randy James. These dances shared the evening with “Friends of Dorothy,” by David Parker, and Doug Elkins’ “Trouble Will Find Me” — pieces that 10 Hairy Legs, an all-male troupe, acquired earlier this year. The most striking contrasts appeared in the first half of the program, as dances that explored the tricky politics of gender rubbed up against a solo that seemed to plead for peace.
“Friends of Dorothy” — the title is gay code for “homosexuals” — has a retro feel, sending up Hollywood stereotypes of masculinity and romance. As starlets of yesteryear croon in accompaniment, a pair of tinsel-town cowboys, Alex Biegelson and Tyner Dumortier, cheerfully go through the motions of riding on horseback, shooting pistols and wooing each other with tongue-in-cheek passion. Parker leaves us guessing if this dance is a pitch for equality, or simply an ironic comment on the roles we’re taught to play.
Mack originally made her “Bathtub Trio” for three women, and it’s fascinating to see the work performed by men. The choreography isolates small gestures that might be drawn from fashion photography; and attitudes that seemed naturally feminine — the relaxed slope of a shoulder, or the inward twist of a knee — are revealed to be social constructs. Mack underscores the shared condition (plight?) of her characters when they line up next to one another to let a hand slide suggestively up someone’s back, or to guard themselves by drawing up an elbow. The dancers seem to know they’re being watched.
Gender issues take a back seat to survival in “St. Petersburg Waltz,” a solo set to darkling piano music by Meredith Monk; Curran choreographed it in 2005, in remembrance of Monk’s Russian-Jewish grandfather. Here a lilting step to the side suggests not only folk dancing but also a delicate game of avoidance. Robert Mark Burke gives an electric performance, alternately robust and finicky in a poignant dance where gestures like a salute, or arms held in a swastika pattern hint at the sinister forces threatening this man’s well-being.