To David Gordon, dance is an intricate game

Athletic sport is a common way for dancers and audiences to regard dancing. David Gordon, a choreographer and performer whose Pick-up Co. is playing at the American Theater Laboratory through Feb. 8, thinks of dance as a game. Not your run-of-the-mill parlor game, but intricately constructed sequences of events that end up fitting together snugly like a crossword puzzle.

Intricacy is at the heart of the game mentality. So are punning and free-associating. (Gordon draws as much upon language as he does on movement.) And so, of course, is humor.

For starters, note the name of Gordon's troupe. It's his typical way of indicating a perfectly serious mode of operation. As he explains, he continually picks up the number of people he needs for a particular project.

Although the name Pick-up Co. has an air of easy come, easy go, Gordon has become a permananent fixture in the dance scene. What stays in flux is the material and tenor of his concerts. Some of his recent ones have been elaborate plays on the theatrical experience itself, in the form of guessing games. How do you tell rehearsal from performance? What's a mistake and what's a rehearsed mistake, and thus not a mistake at all? Does the dancers' dialogue apply to what we're seeing at the very moment, or does it cross-refer back to another moment, or both?

Mr. Gordon's current concert, which he calls "Profile," is a much less baroque edifice than he is capable of, but it offers his typically zany juxtapositions and crazy-quilt construction. At one point the group is crawling on the floor, humming and chanting. In the next sequence he superimposes an entirely different context on the action, which changes the action.

As the dancers line up, still humming, a title card flashes on the screen: "From MGM films." You think of a chorus line. But no. The next card reads, "The Good Earth." And the next card explains how Chinese locusts are really Midwestern grasshoppers. This connection notwithstanding, the chorus-line image does reappear at a much later point, though in an very recalcitrant frame of mind.

What makes this concert relatively straightforward is that images and motifs follow routes that are not so labyrinthine. One can also extract a major theme: the business of lifting and supporting. Sometimes this is explored in pure dance movement. At other times the one being lifted announces that he is the victim. Playing victim is then transposed from the physical arena to a sociological one, in the form of conversation. And of course there is always a splash of humor. As one dancer is lifted high, another admonishes in a motherly voice, "Don't stay up too long."

Supportive movement also implies intimacy, as one found out in an absolutely beautiful sequence called "Dorothy and Eileen." Two women tell each other in soft, matter-of- fact voice how their mothers related to them as children and how they regard their careers as dancers.

Talking about their mothers, they explain everything about themselves. As they talk they perform a pas de deux with lots of contact -- matter-of-factly, since it's just part of the job of dancing. But out of this parallel train of movement and conversation develops a deeply felt statement about friendship. At the end they tell each other their mother's names, Dorothy and Eileen. Then they clasp each other's hands. One believes in their gesture .

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