Provocative Dance Marks Edinburgh Festival

A FEW rows back an English woman's voice was raised. ``Well!,'' it said, ``that performance had no beginning, no middle and no end. You do need them!''

She and the rest of us in Edinburgh's Playhouse Theatre had just endured the hour-long, unremitting ``Dance,'' courtesy of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company. It had been a rigorous and undeniably vigorous (for the dancers, at least) experience. The fact that this dispassionately ritualistic work, originally produced in 1979, is still going strong is a kind of achievement in itself. The music is by Philip Glass, Sol Lewitt created the effective projected-film decor, and Childs herself is still performing in it.

Childs's dance and Glass's music are a marriage made in limbo: They would keep you waiting in perpetuity if they could. The surge of sheer repetitiveness is so relentless that your faculties are bemused.

It is true enough that this dance is minimal, hygienic, terrifyingly purist, and that all these things can be seen by sympathizers as positive assets. But to an audience expecting narrative, climax, mood, elation, they are drawbacks.

It is only after one has broken through the stupefying boundaries of boredom that a sense of deprivation might be replaced by fascination. This happened to me just a few minutes before the piece ceased. I began to observe the little things that are not squeezed out by Childs's minimalism: abstract space, light, and shadow, for example.

The Mark Morris Dance Group, in Edinburgh for its third festival contribution in a row, is a different kettle of fish. It also has a feeling of perpetual motion, but Morris's style, in spite of a certain disruptiveness underneath his amiable humor, has an easygoing appeal. It seems to flow with consummate ingratiation. He joins the beauties of his pastel colors, easy chiffon costumes, and unforced harmonies of movement to the music of Handel and the poetry of Milton's ``L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.''

The result: a performance to delight a festival audience if ever there was one. The piece is essentially a dialogue between melancholy and pleasure. Morris makes certain that pleasure wins by a mile. The bravos resounded even from lips not generally given to such extrovert enthusiasm. It was all engaging, though perhaps leaving one with a taste, as with certain candies, of something soft at the center.

Far more challenging was ``La Vita,'' a work choreographed by Quebecois Jean-Pierre Perreault. This spare, superbly calculated and visually commanding work, about six couples and their changing relationships, was thought-provoking. To Perreault, dance is a language of metaphor, which means in his case that he uses it to explore experience - both individual and social - outside dance itself.

``La Vita'' actually makes audience members ask questions of themselves. A dancer shaking another dancer as if he or she were a rag doll, for example, works not only as an effective and ingenious piece of dancing, but shakes one to think about the balance in one's own relationships. Like drama, Perreault's dance seems to get under the surface and deal with thought and feeling. ``La Vita,'' danced by an intense and incisive group of dancers, compelled one to watch every fraction and fragment of it.

So, in a different way, did the two programs of Balanchine ballets presented by the Miami City Ballet. Balanchine's Americanized classicality was instilled by the company with a stimulating blend of forcefulness and delicate grace. After the Tchaikovsky ``Serenade,'' which opened the second program, the longtime ballet critic in the seat next to me remarked that he thought it to be the finest performance of ``Serenade'' ever.

It reminded me of my first time at the ballet as a child: all the wonder, all the unbelievable gossamer lightness, all the captivating magic of seeing a world that could only exist in the imagination. No mean feat when you consider that this classic work has been in the repertoire since 1934. It was Balanchine's first ballet after he arrived in the United States. Miami City Ballet, under the direction of Edward Villella, has only existed since 1986. The chemistry of such a young company and such an experienced director is working brilliantly.

It is not always encouraging to sit next to other critics. The reviewer next to me at the production of Goethe's Torquato Tasso (which was translated and directed by Robert David MacDonald), announced in the intermission (having noisily taken notes throughout the first act) that he was bored to tears and had no idea why anyone would want to revive such a play.

I did not agree at all. It is hardly a perfect play, having too much argument, not enough action, and two main characters who are personifications of contrary ideas rather than fully credible characters.

But the philosophical battle waged between the poet, Torquato Tasso, and the politician-diplomat, Antonio Montecatino, was built up into an archetypal war between the Romantic and the Classic, between the emotional egocentricity of the artist and the cool compromising reasonableness of the non-artist.

Unlike my neighbor I found it completely absorbing. The main roles were acted by Henry Ian Cusick and Mark Lewis, with the exaggerated emphasis, the fire and the ice, needed to bring the abstract concepts alive.

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