CLOSER AND CLOSER Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson finally connect in Step Touch.
For trend seekers, Different Voices, a showcase for this year’s Bates Dance Festival’s visiting choreographers, hinted at several directions for contemporary dance.
The most promising clue to emerge this past Friday at Schaeffer Theater about what’s up — or upcoming — was a duet titled Step Touch choreographed by Paul Matteson and Jennifer Nugent, BESSIE award-winning New York performers and co-artistic directors of Nugent+Matteson Dance. (Matteson is also a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and grew up in Cumberland.)
Matteson and Nugent are similar in size — each lithe, strong, and well-trained. This physical compatibility, along with the choreography’s intelligence and subtle humor are both significant and entertaining. We don’t need any program notes for Step Touch. The pair’s clear focus and dynamic gestures, interacting with the music’s structure and lyrics, give us ample room to interpret meanings.
The dance begins with a repetitive melodic ditty to which Matteson and Nugent perform side-by-side unison steps, facing the audience. (“Step touch” is a term often used for teaching simple jazz-tap routines and ballroom dances such as the Foxtrot.) The plot thickens with the progressively unruly arrangement of the Carpenters’ sweet 1970 hit “Close to You” (Words and Music by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and performed here by Christopher Lancaster and Allison Leyton-Brown). The refrain “Wahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahhh, close to you” is repeated many, many times, while Matteson and Nugent continue to dance apart, doing a box step around edges of the stage.
Then they reach into thin air with dogged determination and manage to connect at arm’s length, eventually achieving a ballroom position but without really touching. In the dance’s artfully drawn out and finally rather hopeful conclusion, Matteson reaches sideways and Nugent closes in, leaning toward him as he cradles her shoulder and they rearrange themselves to fit together. Their smart physical metaphors suggest associations that engage viewers intellectually and emotional qualities that touch us in surprising ways.
However, most of the evening’s Different Voices demonstrated less “conversational,” more conventional choreographic strategies — dances that were didactic, exploratory, expressive, or illustrative. The program included two explicitly political dances excerpted from longer works: Ananya Chatterjea’s leap from the wings to begin Blood Under My Feet effectively introduced the foot-slapping, mudra-gesturing vocabulary of classical Indian Bharata Natyam with escalating speed and intensity to express frustration, terror, anguish, exhaustion, and supplication on behalf of oppressed peoples. The call to action was emotionally fierce.
In contrast, Not About Iraq, by choreographer/filmmaker Victoria Marks, offered a cool postmodern commentary on power relationships. Performed by Marks and Taisha Paggett — an older, white choreographer and a younger, black performer — the dance’s themes apply to any individual or group attempting to establish a separate identity in the face of imposed values — aesthetic, political, or military.
Nori-Chan-E(To You of Dear), choreographed by Japanese native Yukata Joraku and performed by Festival students Crystal Bella and Emily Skillings, explored the physical interplay of boxers or wrestlers. The contest pitted two thong-clad competitors whose convincing slaps, pushes and punches suggested a wacky-sado-masochistic lesbian Sumo match-up.