So the piece is eclectic, aiming for maximum information without the need for consistency. The women are on pointe at first and in soft slippers later on, but you hardly notice the difference. Elo likes to show his dancers turning as fast and as often as possible, or streaking through space with limbs extended in all directions. The expressionistic curled-up shapes and boa-constrictor partnering arrangements of contemporary dance are not for him. Even when the women are being lifted or caught in midair, they're apt to be doing a rond de jambe at the same time.
Although there are impressive solo opportunities for Kathleen Breen Combes, Whitney Jensen, James Whiteside, and several others I couldn't distinguish, the big idea of this work was carried by the tight-knit units of the ensemble. Prompted by their two eccentric leaders, the company looked spectacular all the time.
Jorma Elo introduces a box and lets the audience put whatever it wants into it, or nothing. Anna Sokolow offers the heart's contents without any framing except the personal experience of each audience member. Without that frame, her dance is pure feelings, free floating and maybe even dangerous.
Sokolow, who died in 2000, always looms in memory as more intense than any performance of her work. In a film clip from an interview with her that was shown at the BU Dance Theater over the weekend, she seems relaxed and mellow as she tells the camera, "I don't think you can be popular if you upset people." Sokolow didn't care to be popular. She was notorious for driving her dancers to extremes, and that didn't mean jumping higher. She demanded that they dig deep and throw away their safety mechanisms. They assaulted the viewer with moves of agonizing slowness, tremors, phobias.
Dancers don't work that way now. The program at BU, given by the Attleboro-based Anna Sokolow Contemporary Dance Company, included two major works. They looked serious, but not savage. Lorry May, the company's artistic director, one of Sokolow's last dancers, is committed to preserving the choreographer's legacy. Live performances are really the only way we can get a sense of a vanished but vital period in our dance history. In this performance, we got Sokolow's game plan in action, if not its deadly potential.
Sokolow, who danced with Martha Graham in the pioneering days of the early 1930s, found her own style in 1953, with a dance to Alban Berg's Lyric Suite. Rather than steps or phrases learned in the studio, her choreography grew from gestures, images, basic everyday moves. Something organic in the motif — its shape, speed, dynamic — would intensify, until realism became abstraction. Sometimes a musical phrase would result; sometimes grotesqueness or panic.
In Lyric Suite, a man and a woman stand next to each other, facing upstage. Slowly each slides one hand along the partner's back. Just this tentative groping for contact. Later they sit on the floor and reach for each other, inching closer by pushing against the floor with one leg doubled under them and one stretched out. In Dreams (1961), four women stand in a group, their arms outstretched, a foot tapping the ground in front of them. They clasp each other's hands and form an outward-facing square. They never make eye contact.