Dance Molded by Sponsorship

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

DAVID Gordon's ``United States'' is a curious event, a dance with two dozen institutional sponsors, elsewhere called collaborators. The idea could set a trend for dance funding as the subsidy purse continues to shrink. With a shrewd eye toward his company's future employment, Gordon offered a piece of the dance to 27 presenting organizations around the country. They got to suggest material for inclusion in the dance, and he gets a year of touring and warmly proprietary audiences. Everyone gets lots of publicity.

Unfortunately, the dance falls short of its artistic promise. Gordon says he wanted to make a dance about the texture of life in different parts of the United States. Each sponsoring entity (from the Anchorage Concert Association to the Kennedy Center in Washington) will be represented by local material in what will eventually be a two-evening extravaganza.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave festival was very light on dance and choreography this year, so it was pleasant to see the 10 Pick Up Company dancers - with Gordon and Valda Setterfield as their mentors - in the two-hour performance of the first four parts of ``United States.'' The company now has a smooth, spacious, laid-back look, a sort of simplified Twyla Tharp style. Gordon proposes a vocabulary of offhandedly elaborated ballet steps and a few signature phrases that recur, with variations in movement size, rhythm, and sequence.

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From the audience, this turns out to look like ``postmodern dance,'' a rather outmoded form now, in which movement is not thought to have any expressive meaning but is put together in formal and often arbitrary ways. Gordon hopes the verbal texts contributed by his enthusiastic collaborators, plus visual and musical trappings, will lend it resonance.

The best localisms are a Carol Bly story about teaching music to Midwestern children, and Meridel Le Sueur's account of going to a farm dance in a buggy; both come near the beginning of the Minnesota section. Setterfield dances in a long, old-fashioned, starchy white cotton dress. Since she's alone on stage, you can hear the story while you also concentrate on the easy way she brushes her leg up into arabesque, pivots round into pench'e, slides sidewards with wide bent knees.

After this, the other dancers arrive. Denimed and ruffled, they do Tharpish movement - a combination of precisely aimed footwork, casual arms and upper bodies, naturalistic transitions. Two Minnesota orchestras play Mozart on tape, and former Walker Art Center impresario Suzanne Weil talks about visiting home. None of this is inherently Minnesotan in mood or character, but we know they come from there, and that induces a frisson of recognition.

The closing San Francisco section identifies itself mostly in pop songs about the city by the bay, with the dancers lip-synching. They wear silky, flowing street clothes in orange and purple and yellow. They lunge about, drag and lift each other, and I guess are supposed to look liberated.

There's a long, embarrassing New York section, with the dancers doubling as swinging policepersons and street toughs. The dance may be intended to match the tongue-in-cheek Broadway gangsterism of the ``Slaughter on Tenth Avenue'' music which accompanies it. Anyway, it looks limp, trite, and unfunny.

The fourth region, New England, is represented by Robert Frost's words of wisdom about being an artist (``Form is what saves us from confusion''), strung between sections of the dance.

Gordon has always used mental inside jokes to enrich his movement with meaning. ``United States'' lets the public feel in the know, in touch with the artist's process, but its regional sensibility is pallid and pat.

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