Annie Marie Musselman
wreck tangle
Maureen Whiting Company at On the Boards, 217-9888. This weekend only.

If you look at the stage geometry, the way the dancers fill the space, Maureen Whiting's new dance, wreck tangle, resembles Merce Cunningham's work (for me, high praise). Cunningham uses chance procedures and visual collage to fill every corner of the stage with activity, typically unrelated, typically all running in parallel. There is always more going on than I can take in at one viewing, or 10. I wasn't surprised to learn that Whiting admires him. Like his dances, hers are dense with activity and hard to grok. But unlike his, hers are coherent and filled with deliberate meaning. Classic Cunningham is waggish and hermetic. Whiting is purposeful, disclosing, metaphoric.

Whiting's dances aren't referential. They don't tell stories. They aren't pretty; "knotty" is more like it. Her dancers seem supremely intelligent, but they aren't strongly differentiated. In fact, it's fascinating to see them submerge themselves in the work; for other choreographers, dancers certainly have personalities. For Whiting they come close to a kind of universalized humanity.

Watching any one of Whiting's dances gives me that British Museum feeling of the very few, choicest treasures selected from an enormous store of loot--she has a huge vocabulary of movement and gesture. She choreographs facial expressions as well as body movements. She uses lots of vernacular motion, ordinary gestures and shrugs and tics; good-humored but never jokey. She also uses invented motion--in wreck tangle, an almost comic gurgling gesture, hands fluttering downward from the face to the stomach, and a high, exaggerated hand wave at the top of an arm extended fully upward. As these gestures recur, they suggest various meanings. The gurgling sketches quenching thirst; filling; filling full; too much? The handwave looks like the private self negotiating with the public, an exaggeration of the mythic Helen of Troy/Jackie O. archetype, again taken almost to comedy but not quite.

The setting in which wreck tangle takes place is quite complicated, and I'm not sure I can un-tangle the work of Whiting's three collaborators, whom I'll list in alphabetical order: video artist Robert Campbell, lighting designer Ben Geffen, and set designer Gary Smoot. There are two tilted screens at the back of the stage, against a wall; two more flank the sides, and changing video images are projected on all four of them. Lights come on and off. There's a transparent wall at the left side of the stage. That's a lot of stuff, but it's composed and architectural. The dancers are in a comprehensible space, an articulated space, and they interact with it in various ways. In the course of the dance, they are cornered, shielded, cut off, sheltered; and sometimes they throw themselves against the wall with a resounding thwack.

Video-dance combinations are a dime a dozen these days, and mostly I find the video distracting, bombastic, and irrelevant. But not always. You might remember Seeing with Both Eyes Closed, a previous collaboration between Whiting and Campbell (it's the one with the mystic, glowing dress). Eyes Closed is one of the few examples I can think of in which video and dance combine instead of clashing; wreck tangle now joins that short list. I'm convinced that the success of both pieces has to do with scale. The video projections aren't huge, unconnected, floating blobs. They exist in the same space as the dancers; the dancers can almost dance with them, not just in front of them. And toward the end of the dance some of the projections incorporate the dancers' shadows to great effect.

All these elements are coordinated, and they're used to express strong feeling. Over and over there's a group onstage, or two groups, and over at the edge a solitary figure, struggling. Over and over the dancers throw back their heads in the gesture that means "rage against the sky." Over and over they observe each other (I've never seen anyone else choreograph the glance so effectively), and are aware of each other's watching. Over and over they bump against obstacles, seen and unseen. Recently, Merce Cunningham has put aside his I Ching coins and begun to admit into his dances the human emotion he had previously held at bay. Whiting, right at the beginning of her career, embraces emotion. In my mind's eye I introduce them: No, no, Merce, she's not just a worthy successor, she got there first.

Barley Blair is the pseudonym of that little old lady practicing heel-toe, heel-toe.