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Stereophonic mired in the heaviness of abstraction

Peggy Baker Dance Projects presents Stereophonic

John Lauener

Peggy Baker Dance Projects
Betty Oliphant Theatre
Runs Until
Sunday, March 03, 2013

Peggy Baker is one of the most revered dance icons in the country. Thus, to say that her latest show Stereophonic comes up short is akin to heresy. I can feel the rotten tomatoes hurtling my way as I write this.

I am, and always will be, a great admirer of Baker's, but truth be told, when there are premieres on the program, but it is the older works that seem the freshest, there is a problem. Stereophonic, unfortunately, seems mired in the heaviness of abstraction.

As usual, Baker's choreography is wonderfully thought out, beautifully sculptured, and meticulously detailed. Baker also always makes dancers look good, Nonetheless, there is a retro feel to the evening.

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All the scores feature New Music, both acoustic and electronic. When coupled with weighty themes, the bill of fare seems like a throwback to the time when modern dance was equated with things serious and melody-less.

Encoded Revision wins hands down. The work dates back to 1997, and the intervening 16 years has not dimmed its raucous swagger. Pianist John Kameel Farah is on hand to play the late composer Michael J. Baker's mile-a-minute score.

The piece was inspired by the death of the composer's great-grandfather, a crew member killed in a train accident in 1898. Apparently, a tramp who had hopped the freight was only slightly injured. He was last seen walking east after breakfast.

Dancer Benjamin Kamino, costumed like a tramp, begins in high gear and never stops. He is the train, leaping, spinning and jumping over the stage, even mimicking level crossing "X"s. Equally clever is Farah's throwing the pages of the score to the floor when he's finished playing them, forming a billowing debris field around him.

Everything about this solo works. The high octane energy of the dance itself. The sporadic bits of text shouted by Kamino and Farah. The visuals of the flying music paper. It is an utterly engaging romp, albeit tinged with the tragedy that was its wellspring.

In a Landscape (1995), performed by Andrea Nann, is Baker at her most lyrical. Farah plays John Cage's eponymous piano score, as Nann, mostly standing in one spot, uses the suppleness of her body, the grace of her arms, and the controlled balance of her legs to evoke images of nature. The piece is a Baker classic.

Of the three premieres, Epilogue, featuring Baker herself at 60, is the most successful. The piece is an elegy, set to the electronic music of Tim Motzer. In this work, Baker acknowledges the loss of her husband of 21 years, the late musician/composer Ahmed Hassan.

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Her metaphor is two grey chairs, which she manipulates throughout the piece. Its leitmotif is a restless energy. Baker can't keep her hands off the chairs. She walks away, but is drawn back to their constant repositioning. At times, however, it feels like too much handling of the chairs.

The major new work on the program is Split Screen Stereophonic, which uses an electric score by the sound design team Knuckleduster. The quartet features Sahara Morimoto, partnered by Sean Ling, and Sarah Fregeau, partnered by Kamino. The backdrop is made up of two screens, each with its own abstract graph.

At first, Baker simultaneously shows each woman's state of mind, then has the men join them later in the dance, and we see the two couples in contrast to each other. Patterns repeat and reform, together and separately. It is complex choreography.

Unfortunately, the piece is curiously passionless. In fact, until the men arrive, one doesn't know the piece is about romantic relationships. Even with the men, there is no sexual chemistry. Rather, Split Screen Stereophonic lacks fire. The choreography, while crisp and clear, is medium cool.

The other new piece is Aleatoric Solo No. 1 with Farah improvising on his array of electronica. (The musical term aleatoric means chance – or so Wikipedia tells me.)

The work is a solo for Morimoto who has been a protege of Baker's. The choreography is made up of bits and pieces culled from their 15-year choreographic history together. It is marked by a highly defined gestural language, which Morimoto performs with her usual precision.

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When the evening is taken as a totality, there are givens – primarily, excellent dancers executing well-made dances. Since the evening begins with Encoded Revision, however, the sparkle seems to ooze out of the program with each subsequent piece.

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