AT one point in a remarkable dance about the relationship between Koko, the educated gorilla, and a kitten, performer Ann Carlson tenderly carries the kitten by the scruff of its neck in her teeth. She moves in a graceful, uncannily gorilla-like gait, expressing such tenderness for the kitten that it makes a point about the universality of mother love. The old show-business maxim that animals will always upstage you was turned on its head. Carlson's intent observation of them made her at least as compelling as the kitten, goldfish, dog, and goats she and her dancers shared the stage with this spring in ``Animals,'' her evening-long piece.
That she appeared in Boston at all is due to the perseverance of Jeremy Alliger, director of Dance Umbrella, an organization that has lived up to its motto ``experience the unexpected'' since he founded it in 1981.
``Animals'' had only been performed for two weeks in New York, where Carlson created it. A week before the Boston performance, Dance Umbrella still had not come up with a young kitten for her, since it was early in the year for them to be born, and Carlson doubted the work could successfully be repeated.
But a kitten made the gig. Audiences were ecstatic, pouring out their admiration for Carlson in post-performance ``Meet the Artist'' sessions. Afterwards, she felt more willing to perform it again. ``I can't turn a deaf ear to what they've said. It's very humbling,'' she commented. Thanks to Mr. Alliger, she had discovered the mobility of her work, and the Boston audience had discovered her.
Alliger is one of a new breed of arts presenters, according to Salli Ann Kriegsman, director of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts. ``They are now being looked to for increasing leadership and vision - working with artists, commissioning work,'' and helping artists travel with their work. This is necessary in a time of scarce arts funding, she said. ``We'll see the presenter in the next decade performing a more important role.''
After Carlson, Dance Umbrella presented the opening of the national tour of ``Africa Oy'e!'' a collection of 52 African singers, musicians, and dancers, from Guinean acrobats to Papa Wemba, an Afro-Pop star from Zaire. Dance Umbrella has also brought in new-wave Montreal dancers and Japan's Sankai Juku; staged a two-month jazz tap dancing festival where hoofers and school kids got to work together; and presented works by Boston dancers.
As far as dance is concerned, ``Boston has come back from the dead,'' says Peter White, director of New York's Dance Theater Workshop and founder of the 17-city National Performance Network, which subisidizes touring costs for about 20 percent of the artists Alliger presents.
Alliger stumbled onto dance in the '70s, when a friend handed him his job of lighting dance performances in a church basement. ``I lit my first dance concert that weekend,'' Alliger recalls. ``Sweated a lot, very nervous, but I fell in love with the field that weekend.''
He started Dance Umbrella out of frustration. Local dance companies would schedule their annual concerts the same weekend, fragmenting an audience that was small to start with. ``I said, `This is nuts,''' he recalls, ``and that's when I came up with the idea of trying to coerce the companies that were self-producing anyway into letting me schedule them.''
He began bringing in dancers from outside Boston because ``I'm isolated, and so is the Boston dance community.'' The audience grew, and Dance Umbrella did too. In 1985, the organization had to sublet a theater from the Boston Shakespeare Company, and it offered subscribers a series that included Boston dancers, the Twyla Tharp Dance Company, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, heralded as the next great hope for American modern dance. Dance Umbrella is now the largest dance presenter in New England, with a budget last year of over $900,000.
Alliger seems omnipresent. He hovers in the lobby at his own productions, greeting friends and abruptly dashing off to fix last-minute glitches. He turns up at unheralded local concerts. He'll mention a dance festival he's been to in Montreal or some interesting aerialists he saw in Seattle. He's on many local arts organization boards.
Dance Umbrella's general manager, Deborah Kittredge, likens him to the ``Peanuts'' character Pigpen. Instead of dust, he's surrounded with a swirl of ideas for new projects, she says. For all his contact with people, he's not expansive; when asked how he keeps up the pace, he mutters, ``Because I love what I'm doing.'' Always well-tailored, he favors dark suits and unusual eye-glasses; in repose he looks like a smartly furled umbrella - but he is rarely in repose.
In an interview in his two-family house in Boston's Brighton section, he said, ``I always say that if I knew what was out there and if I knew what obstacles there were, if I had role models and saw their struggles, I probably never would have tried to start this. I had the luxury of ignorance.''
One of his worst setbacks happened when Dance Umbrella and the Boston Ballet collaborated on the Discovery Festival. The ballet performed new works by young choreographers, and Dance Umbrella presented the choreographers' own companies. With a few weeks to go before opening night, the Boston Shakespeare Company let him know it was extending the run of a lucrative visiting show and that he would have to find another theater.
The only one available was the Shubert, a union house. Dance Umbrella moved the festival into it, incurring a $60,000 debt, rather than abandoning the project. Deborah Kittredge remembers, ``It was a turning point, where the board of directors of Dance Umbrella and private and public funding sources all said, `We'll support you.'''
Two years later, Dance Umbrella has just retired the deficit and still has no home theater, although this year Alliger is only presenting works in six different venues, down from 12 sites last year. He has turned the situation to his advantage. Audiences follow his productions from place to place, and he is able to present a wider variety of performers - from Montreal dancer Marie Chouinard in a rock club to Mark Morris selling out the Opera House as he left the United States to take his company to Brussels.
``I've never seen Jeremy hide from a problem,'' comments Salli Ann Kriegsman. ``He'll take on almost anything, and he's an absolute believer in what he does.''
His worst challenge so far may be this season, because of a decision in the Massachusetts legislature to slash funding for the state's Council on the Arts and Humanities. Before the cut, the council supplied about one-fourth of Dance Umbrella's budget. ``The biggest challenge is seeing how we can go ahead'' with less funding, Alliger says.
In June, Morris and the Monnaie Dance Group, his company as reconstituted in its new home in Brussels, performed the American premi`ere of a new work, ``Dido and Aeneas,'' in Boston. ``New York may have the glamour, but Boston has the excitement - at least in dance,'' wrote critic Dale Harris in the Wall Street Journal. ``There has been nothing at Lincoln Center this summer to compare with Mark Morris.''
The Monnaie group worked for just its expenses because of the relationship it has with Alliger and, through him, with Boston, said company manager Barry Alterman. ``The organization itself is like Dance Theater Workshop in New York or any of the smaller, more adventurous, `alternative' spaces. They are the only places where young artists get started. In the same spirit, we want to nurture Dance Umbrella. We want Jeremy to become the big mainstream producer,'' he said.
Some Boston dancers, however, feel left out. They formed Dance Alliance, a service organization, partly to hold Alliger to his commitment to the local dance community. They have objected to Dance Umbrella's practice of paying all expenses for outside artists' productions, while Boston companies were given ``assisted productions.''
The local companies paid their own expenses, plus a $500 fee for listing on the Dance Umbrella calendar, says Ms. Kittredge. Dance Umbrella provided free promotional assistance and box office services. Now the assisted production is no more. In 1990, in the ``Montreal-Boston Exchange'' series, three Boston and three Montreal companies will appear in both cities, all fully produced by Dance Umbrella.
The Boston companies also object to the fact that their proportion is dwindling on Dance Umbrella's international roster. But Jeanne Beaman of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities feels Alliger's creation of a new audience has helped all the dancers, and the works he brings in from outside Boston are ``a tremendous opportunity for the dance audience, and not only the dance audience, but for local dancers.'' This fall, Dance Umbrella will present Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara, a specialist in post-butoh dance; Dutch choreographer Anglika Oei; and Seattle choreographer Pat Graney, whose company will perform on uneven parallel bars.
A work by Pooh Kaye was commissioned last fall by Dance Umbrella. She is a New York dancer who grew up in Boston, but left because ``it was very small-town in attitude.'' She recently moved back. ``Many more people have poured into Boston, and the potential for a really active arts community is there.'' She praised Alliger's efforts to bring in the best work and his willingness to take chances. ``Without him, Boston would be, for dance, a wimpy place,'' she said.