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Dazzling dance at Spoleto

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Transcendence and otherness have long been staples of ballet and modern dance, probably because we crave a visionary spectacle from graceful performers who are mute. Petrushka, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake are all teeming with characters who extend the bounds of movement with their inhuman nature.

So three of the dance companies I saw at Spoleto this year didn't bring anything fundamentally new to the artform, but they certainly freshened the old paradigms. The first to perform at Gailliard Auditorium, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo would probably be better described if their name ended with Monty Python, since their renown is mostly an offshoot of their slapstick comedy and irreverent satire. But when you watch the all-male troupe for awhile, crossdressing and en pointe, you begin to suspect that these are also guys -- maybe gays -- who started doing what they do because they were jealous of the dance moves regarded as belonging exclusively in the ballerina's domain.

Watching the Trocks perform Act 2 of Swan Lake, you gradually begin to appreciate their excellence as dancers as well as comedians. They aren't merely crossing over and switching genders, but in a certain respect, they're transcending gender by combining the special ballet moves that have been traditionally reserved for men or women.

The comedy, of course, suffuses even the program booklet, where the real names of the dancers are surrendered to French or Russian puns like Colette Adae and Nina Enimenimynimova. So the interludes where the Trocks dazzle us with their technical versatility -- instead of sustaining the same comedic consistency onstage -- may be experienced as a letdown by those who are there for the laughs. Knowing what to expect, I must admit enjoying the Trocks far more this second time around after discarding the expectations I brought with me when I saw them for the first time long ago.

Of the three other pieces they brought to Charleston, I laughed most heartily at Patterns in Space, a brutal takedown of the avant garde music of John Cage and the choreography of Merce Cunningham. Unexpectedly, a good chunk of the merriment came from the musicians' corner of the stage, where Lariska Dumbchenko, fresh from her triumph as Odette in Swan Lake, bickered with R.M. ("Prince") Myshkin.

Gallim Dance was the first dance company to ever perform at Memminger Auditorium, so it was doubly exciting when the venue proved to be so conducive to the eclectic unpredictability of I Can See Myself in Your Pupil. Music ranged from Puccini to Balkan Beat Box to Santogold while the choreography by artistic director Andrea Miller was often a deconstruct of the usual energy and rigidity we find in modern dance and ballet. We began with a very liquid solo, I suspect by associate director Francesca Romo, which often reduced her to a fetal ball before she magnificently flowed from the floor to an upright position without planting her hands or knees.

The same primitivism ruled the staging, with no scenery at all, only a row of lighting scaffolds on which some of the dancers' costumes were hung in plain sight. A simple white screen spanned the upstage wall, where six of the dancers stood facing us, as if in a police lineup, to begin a segment. During these segments, our focus was often directed away from dancers to their shadows on the screen. When couples interacted, one often would become as limp and inanimate as the opening solo, getting tossed around by a partner like a gelatinous mass or flowing over a partner who was crouched nearby. Hypnotically inhuman with a deep tinge of pathos.

Two weekends later, the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company took an opposite path to otherness in Oyster, using the imagery of Tim Burton as a launching pad for robotic hyper-rigidity in their unforgettable harlequinade. Characters appeared in a dreamy phantasmagorical sequence that not only aped Burton's famed animations but also evoked doll-like ballerinas, carnival sideshows, and silent film comedians. The opening vision, a shivering catatonic clown and an expressionless one-legged upside-down ballerina, haunted the entire hour-long choreography, but there were other sets of characters that made deep impressions.

A pair of stationary Siamese siblings, stacked almost vertically, were wheeled onto the Memminger stage by a female with a stool permanently affixed to her butt. She literally seated herself as the brothers performed a perfectly synchronized set of hand movements and head swivels -- the only breaks in sync occurring when the shorter brother's head disappeared in the depths of his starchy gray suit. Slinking around all this anti-dance was a clown as old, flabby, loose-limbed, and baggy-pantsed as the opening clown was young, rail-thin, elegant, and trimly-tailored.

Oyster continued with an aerial segment, a chorus line of pale chorines who could have passed for mummies, and a climactic little tragedy where not only the gray-suited brothers but the booth they performed on were wheeled onstage -- a play-within-a-play on a stage-within-a-stage. Until this Haifa-based company performed, I would have rated Gallim as the most exciting event at this year's Spoleto. But beneath the comedy, slapstick, and surrealism of Oyster, there was an undercurrent of anguish, of Israelis living lives that are never quite normal, natural, or real.

So the ultimate effect was quite devastating.

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