BetterBiscuitDance at On the Boards, 217-9888.
Fri Nov 9-Sat Nov 10 only.

I'm in the kitchen of a stranger, and there are four women in front of me. One chops onions and sobs quietly. Another perches on a counter, languorously checking her makeup in a knife's reflection. Another naps, and the last is sautéing something in a frying pan and... dancing.

This is a preview installation of Summerhouse, a dance performance by the troupe BetterBiscuitDance. It's a very strange, novel thing: a dance that takes place not four feet away from the viewers, and at times is so close you can feel the performers' breath. We follow the dancers from room to room, although sometimes there is simultaneous action in two places at once. It takes some initiative from the audience, and some decision-making: Do I stay here in the living room and watch a trio of dancers do a kind of formal minuet, tied together with aprons? Or do I break ranks from the audience and leave for the kitchen, where I hear strange, sharp sounds?

BetterBiscuitDance is Alex Martin and Freya Wormus, and in Summerhouse they're joined by choreographer Sarah Fogg and dancers Melissa Lipko, Allison van Dyck, and Amy Windecker. In Wormus' previous performances, I've noticed a deft combination of tiny gestures (a finger swirled in a tiny circle, an arm closing protectively toward the body) and movements of almost daring physicality. Last year, Wormus created a whole work around a giant seesaw-like apparatus that the dancers ran, rolled, and jumped on; they often hoisted themselves off into the air--frequently leaving me quite breathless and a little nervous.

This combination of subtlety and grand gesture is recontextualized in Summerhouse, so that it feels like an exploration of, and claustrophobic striking out at, the space's limits. Wormus, who is so slight she can comfortably curl up on a sink ledge, finds herself frequently thrown, bounced, pulled from here to there. In the living room segment, Fogg, Lipko, and Wormus start by huddling together on a big couch, and soon their interaction escalates to some very rough play indeed.

Other moments draw directly on the experience of being contained by a house, sometimes in startlingly intimate ways: waking up and readjusting oneself to one's body, trying to leave and being unable to, having to share a small space with another person. The daily mundanity of common tasks finds echoes in the choreography, without seeming trite or gimmicky. But what is so odd about the experience of being this close to a dance performance, nearly participating in it, is how concrete it is. All the years I spent in ballet class ended up making the activity of dance into a fairly abstract matter, something with almost no relevance to the other things that took up my day. But Summerhouse reminded me that movement is movement, and often the only thing that delineates privacy from performance is the lack of an audience. Everything in the house is a potential prop or inspiration. Even a skinny 16-year-old cat, snoozing on the bed, gave a diva-like howl when removed before the bedroom segment. The border between life and performance is as permeable and cooperative as a cell membrane.

This preview has been done once before, at a home in Wallingford, and whatever it is that the dancers learn from the actual confinement of dancing in a living space--in this case, the dynamic sense of the word applies, as well as the descriptive--will be translated into a stage performance at On the Boards. When I asked Wormus how this transformation to the more static, distanced stage would be effected, she said, somewhat mysteriously, "We're wondering that too."

Summerhouse will be shown with Twosome, a series of duets by Wormus and Martin, who are domestic partners as well as artistic collaborators. Again, it would be far too easy to draw equivalencies between real-life and dance situations--but by not fastidiously hiding the fact of their relationship, Wormus and Martin intensify the dynamics of the dance (a pas de deux is, traditionally, a romantic work after all). Twosome also includes music and song from another couple, the wonderful Jeppa Hall (with her absolutely beautiful voice and without, this time, her stable of ingenious performance personae) and Eli Kaufman. A treat any way you look at it.