The men who dance for 10 Hairy Legs are quick studies. They copy movements and commit spatial patterns to memory with an ease that non-dancers shuffling through the same physical routines, day-in and day-out, can scarcely imagine.
The ability to learn quickly is essential in this troupe, which returns to the Theater at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg on Sunday. In the three years since artistic director Randy James founded 10 Hairy Legs, an all-male, contemporary dance ensemble based in Highland Park, the repertoire has mushroomed through a policy of rapid acquisitions and commissioning. With 23 dances now in active rotation, the choreography has accumulated far more quickly than would have been possible if James were creating it all himself.
Many of these pieces are also double- or triple-cast, increasing the challenge but also offering the men a feast of opportunities. James says the size of the repertoire gives him flexibility in assembling programs, so audiences can enjoy a wider variety of works.
“We have a lot to choose from, and we can mix and match,” James says. Sunday’s lineup includes “six incredibly different pieces,” he adds, five of which are new to RVCC.
The matinee opens with “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” While Julie Bour’s dance does, in fact, have an elephant in it, the pachyderm sculpture hanging upstage doesn’t quite add up, leaving it to the three blind men of the fable to imagine what the whole animal is like. Bour uses this premise as an excuse to apply her own imagination. She has devised three contrasting solos and added a mysterious fourth character who shadows the trio, pulling their dances together.
David Parker’s duet “Slapstuck” instantly changes the tone. Hilarity follows disbelief when it becomes apparent that Parker’s happy-go-lucky protagonists are literally sticking to each other with Velcro. Setting boundaries for relationships is never easy, but we all know “too close” when we see it. James describes this goofy, vaudeville number as “a palate cleanser.”
After experiencing comic relief, viewers should be able to settle down and focus, allowing themselves to sense the vulnerability and loss in James’ “Heaven’s Dust.” The dance, he explains, has gone through various incarnations since he first created it. When a third dancer joined the cast, the 6-minute duet expanded to 28. James says he wasn’t satisfied, however, so he began cutting the piece again, allowing the spatial relationships among the figures to determine where the dance was going and what it would express. The current version of “Heaven’s Dust” lasts for 12 minutes; James says when he stood back from it he was surprised at how the reconfigured piece had come to reflect events in his own life. Although he allows that death and love’s timelessness are themes of this trio, there is no story and viewers will have to let their own emotions guide them.
The second half of the program is splashier. It opens with Heidi Latsky’s “Solo 1,” a rooted piece that reveals the beauty of the dancer’s body in circular motion. Stephen Petronio’s duet “Bud” follows, seemingly loose and carefree but densely packed with steps and challenging in its co-dependent partnering. “It has more choreography in 4 ½ minutes than I’ve seen in my life, and they are so skilled at it that they actually make it look slow,” James says.
Doug Elkins’ sly ensemble piece “Trouble Will Find Me” concludes the program on a high note, with the men flashing teasing smiles as they glide, tumble and frolic across the stage. Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan supplies infectious rhythms; while in echt post-modern style the choreographer fuses movement genres from hip-hop to capoeira and the merengue, creating a piece of daredevil complexity.
“They make it look so simple, but it is not simple,” James says. “They dance their butts off.”
10 Hairy Legs performs at 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 8) at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg. Call (908) 725-3420 or visit rvccarts.org.