NEW YORK — More than four decades have passed since the postmodern tidal wave swept over the landscape of dance. Three generations of choreographers have sprouted since, and one of the most interesting developments in the evolution of postmodernism has been the restoration of emotional content in dance work that has the outward feel of neutrality. Last weekend I had a chance to check in on two important latter-day postmodernists, Susan Marshall and Seán Curran.
Marshall, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000, marks the 20th anniversary of her company this year. She premiered Cloudless at Montclair (New Jersey) State University’s handsome, nearly new Alexander Kasser Theater. The piece goes to Dance Theater Workshop in New York for two weeks beginning March 8. Parts of it were shown last summer at Jacob’s Pillow, and Marshall has added several new sections to what’s now a 75-minute collection of small but related events.
Marshall builds up a dance from non-literal gestures, isolated body moves, and prop-induced activity. In Cloudless, pieces of furniture, scenery, and equipment are moved in and out of the space to provide settings for oblique dramas. A kind of coherence grows as actions and elements return, reconfigured, throughout.
Petra van Noort began the evening with a solo of pushes and shrugs and feathery hand movements. Jutting and folding her torso, tugging at her clothes, she seemed surprised, or uncomfortable, as if she wanted to escape her body. Then Luke Miller slowly raised his arms, dropped them, and proceeded into a deranged barre — off-center stretches, sprung pliés, gestures cut off in mid path.
Both these solos hinted at an uneasiness, a world out of joint, and before Miller was through, prone bodies of other dancers began sliding in from the wings. Every time one appeared, he’d interrupt his dance to shove the intruder off stage. More people would slide in, then pieces of scenery, more bodies, a man on a chair. Miller’s efforts to stave them off grew more frantic, less effective.
The whole of Cloudless has an absurdist theatricality. All the encounters turned out to be doomed, or evidently pointless. Marshall creates the same unfathomable suspense as certain crime writing — the short, flat sentences without qualifiers or consequences, where every action takes on an importance because you don’t know where it may be leading. The most powerful parts of Cloudless are tinged with this unbearable irresolution, or its darkly comic other side.
Kristen Hollinsworth and Joseph Poulson dance what could be an erotic duet or a murder scene. Their embraces and lifts halt suddenly in mid air or mid arousal. Muffled sounds burst from their tangled bodies. You realize they’re cries of — what? Anguish? Ecstasy? Terror? In more than one group episode, van Noort gets undressed by other people, half-hidden in a mosh pit of moving bodies.