Dance with drama

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One exciting development in the dance world within the last year has been the proliferation of avant-garde festivals.

Experimental choreography has always been around, of course, but mostly as catch-as-catch-can affairs. Festivals are useful because they have a way of formally proclaiming the existence of something as amorphous as a cultural trend.

These festivals have taken place in such cities as Minneapolis and Durham, N.C. Curiously, New York City has not been a festival site even though it's commonly acknowledged as the dance capital of the United States and possibly the world.

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However, there is one theater in New York that, while not advertising itself as a crucible of new dance, just happens to provide the public with an almost continuous program of it. Anyone interested in seeing the latest dance talent naturally goes to the Dance Theater Workshop, a small but commodious theater not inconveniently off the beaten track.

The most recent presentation by Dance Theater Workshop is typical of its excellence in programming. The featured young choreographer was Jim Self, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Although Self is somewhat of a novice choreographer, his work comes to us with utter authority and composure.

''Lookout,'' an hour-long solo, is one example. Going beyond the tidy abstractions favored by so many young avant-gardists, Self infuses his dance with drama. ''Lookout'' is a kind of story, told in discrete vignettes, about exile.

Accompanied by a script that is read aloud by invisible voices, the dance features a Japanese journalist who stays home all day watching television in order to learn English, while his apartment mate, Lucy, goes off to work.

We learn that the journalist writes human-interest, slice-of-life stories for his newspaper back home in Nagasaki. We experience through dance that this man's own life is sliced as thinly as the stories he writes, and that in between the slices is a terribly sad, terribly funny void.

While Richard Elovich's text provides the data and Edward Henderson's decor suggests the tomblike feel of an apartment that is inhabited too intensely, the essence of the story comes from Self's dances, which work their power through inference.

They contain exquisitely calibrated movements that don't quite fit together, arms that strike peculiar angles, and motions that require great stress but that don't attain goals.

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