Finding a place to dance if you can't afford the Met

If New York is the dance capital of the world, it is so despite a housing shortage. In locating a suitable theater, many companies face a squeeze similar to that of the middle class. IF you can't afford the Metropolitan Opera but have graduated from the small, scruffy downtown-loft scene, where do you perform?

An organization called Dance Umbrella, which sponsors middle-sized, medium-established groups, has had to fold several times for lack of the right theater.

Now it's back in business at a newly renovated space called, reasonably enough, The Space. This is a 300-seat theater in the basement of the City Center, whose large auditorium houses dance companies in the upper echelons. The Space has a shiny new floor made specifically for dancers, an impressive grid of lighting equipment proudly exposed (this is chic these days), and good sight lines. The stage is wonderfully deep and wide, but its lack of height tends to bear down on the dancers, depriving them of breathing room.

In other words, there's no hiding the fact that The Space is in the basement of the landlord's chateau.

It's also true that when the dancing was particularly exciting, I forgot I was in the basement. The Viola Farber Dance Company, which opened a month-long Dance Umbrella series last week, provided several such moments of transport. One ot them occured during the closing seconds of "Solo," performed by Farber. Slowly she crouched to the floor, her hands vaguely caressing the air, or perhaps some imaginary objects. Then she made a gathering motion and carefully turned her palms toward us, as if to reveal to us her discovery.

In the process of opening her hands, her whole torso seemed to expand and open, and her eyes took on a soft but penetrating glow. Like a flower opening its innermost petals, Farber seemed to be sharing with us her most precious possession -- a pebble found on the beach perhaps -- or perhaps her inner being.

Powerful from beginning to end was "Ledge," a group dance to a fascinating percussive score played live by Jean-Pierre Drouet. With Drouet's soft hums and whispers adding a mysterious tone to the instrumental twangs and gongs, the dancers propel themselves into motion and then stand frozen at the peak of the movement, on the ledge as it were.

As "Ledge" proceeds, Farber arranges all kinds of variations on the opening dynamic, speeding it up, blurring it, softening it. What's so engrossing, however, is that no matter now much change Farber fashions, "Ledge" keeps its pristine sternness and vigor.

Farber's more recent works depart sharply from the past. They are lirical and, following a trend among modern dancers, are set to standard music from the classical repertory. "Bequest" is to the Mendelssohn Trio in D Minor and "Tea for Three" is to Bizet's Jeux d'Enfants.

That choreographers of Farber's background are now willing to use all kinds of music shows a new-found maturity in modern dance. The trouble here is that Farber seems to posses neither the vocabulary nor the heart for lyricism. "Bequest" is sloshy. "Tea for Three" accommodates itself to the limitations of dancers of a certain age and in so doing undersells Bizet.

You shouldn't try to "hide" age, just as you can't hide the subterranean feel of The Space. Yet it's better than no theater, and the Umbrella series promises several interesting companies through April 26 -- among them Margaret Jenkins from San Francisco and Elis a Monte, a Martha Graham soloist turned choreographer.

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