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BWW Reviews: Chen Center Hosts Laura Pawel's Multi-Faceted Dances

As a choreographer, Laura Pawel doesn't have much use for commonplace standards of beauty. The dancers in some companies look like they've stepped right off the pages of Vogue or GQ, but the dancers in the Laura Pawel Dance Company a lot more like the members of your local 50+ Club. Instead of appearing in elegantly unassuming costumes, Pawel's troupe performs wearing shades of crayon purple, magic marker blue, and glitter glue gold. Instead of moving in unison, Pawel's dancers circulate individually, making sharp, erratic gestures. They often do all this while offering loosely-connected declarations about computers, apartments, family life, and a bevy of other topics.

This isn't idiosyncrasy for the sake of idiosyncrasy, since there's a wonderfully quiet sense of humor and an equally quiet, equally wonderful intelligence to Pawel's artistic choices. This past weekend, five of Pawel's most recent compositions were performed at the Chen Dance Center in lower Manhattan. The wry humor was much in evidence, since Pawel's dancers have a habit of performing the silliest motions-jerking back and forth like robots, pretending to be gusts of wind or human tornadoes-completely deadpan. But there's a smart side to this silliness. Pawel's recent dances evoke problems of miscommunication, faulty consciousness, and tempered loneliness. Despite her show's patches of feel-good music and cheerful colors, she doesn't really present dance as a way of escaping these dilemmas; rather, Pawel's combination of dance and dialogue is a way of wistfully examining these situations, gesture by gesture, declaration by declaration.

In the words of the Chen Center program, Pawel has "choreographed over sixty dances" since she founded her company in 1968 and works regularly with "original music within improvisational structures." She also dances in many of her own pieces. Knowing all this, you might have expected last weekend's performance to feel quite a bit like a pet project-and you would have been completely mistaken. The first piece of the showcase, Switchbacks (2012), is something of a meditation on urban disconnect. Initially, each of Pawel's dancers takes the stage with a few flourishes, yet each dancer remains strangely detached from all the others for the duration of the piece. Note also that Pawel's seven-person company features a husband-and-wife couple (Jim and Pamela Finney). Yet they are impossible to pair off, at least without captioned photos. Take this as a measure of how thick the mood of detachment is in Switchbacks, and as a measure of the company's professionalism.

Switchbacks was followed by premieres of two new pieces: Tête-à-Tete and Lost Thoughts. Set to live music by the blues duo Barebones, Tête-à-Tete featured only Pawel and one other dancer, Stacey Berkheimer. This composition isn't exactly a study of communication, in spite of its title. What is most striking is the contrast between the spare Pawel and the statuesque Berkheimer, and the contrast in styles-Berkeheimer's sense of almost constant control, Pawel's willingness to alternate sophisticated maneuvers with gestures signifying effort, instability, almost panic. With a piece for five dancers like Lost Thoughts, individual styles are harder to pinpoint. In fact, the music by experimental composer Phil Stone suggested a fluid, integrated movement that few of the other dance accompaniments-pianos, trumpets, and guitars-could really evoke.

Another selection on the night's program-the concluding ensemble piece Easy for You to Say (2010)-stuck off into noticeably different territory. Barebones returned to provide the soundtrack, but the sparkling costumes of previous selections like Switchbacks and Inkling (2011) were replaced with Dust Bowl-style clothes in very Dust Bowl colors. Easy for You to Say featured some of the troupe's sillier antics. (This is where they do the "human gust of wind" routine.) Yet there were also some small, inexplicably smart touches. For much of the piece, Pawel and Berkheimer sit on the floor, not really watching, but perhaps waiting for something. Waiting for what? At first, this touch seems to contrast with all the motion onstage. But Easy for You to Say is a homely piece-and what could be homelier than sitting on the floor and passing the time? It's funny, but also beautifully conceived.

Pawel's sense of beauty, however, becomes more conventional once her dances enter their final stages. Several of the pieces performed at the Chen Dance Center end with immobile (or just barely moving) group formations, then a gradual lowering of the lights. Striking images, but probably not experimental enough for what's gone before. There's a big part of me that wishes that, instead of finishing on notes of possible pathos and clear culmination, Pawel and her colleagues had kept hitting random chords right to the end.

There's also a part of me that wouldn't have it any other way, pathos or no pathos. As I watched Pawel's showcase, I felt myself transported to a cultural moment when progressive art, thought, and action were laced with passion and sentiment-when being avant-garde had little, or maybe nothing, to do with hipsterish ironies. It helped that I was sitting next to a fellow who was around for the Kent State riots, and a woman who affectionately remembered Merce Cunningham simply as "Merce." Yet Pawel's new dances don't merely take us back to a vanished era. They do something much better; they prove that the offbeat, oddly heartfelt artistic values of an earlier time are still vital and still right here in New York-if only you know where to look.

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From This Author - Patrick Kennedy

Patrick Kennedy serves as Lead Critic in the Visual Arts for BroadwayWorld.  He regularly contributes reviews of museum and gallery exhibitions, performing arts events, and new art books. &nbs... (read more about this author)