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Meaning gets under troupe's 'Skin'

By Thea Singer, Globe Correspondent, 10/19/2002

It's difficult to be a choreographer on a mission. Your movement, no matter how original, runs the risk of being subsumed by meaning. Your architecture has a good chance of crumbling under the weight of intent. Kelley Donovan, in the six pieces in this show, makes a Herculean effort to avoid those pitfalls, while also making clear in her thematic choices and even her program notes that she crafts dances about ''transformation, healing and women's history.'' Her success at the endeavor is mixed.

The best of the offerings is the simplest one: a solo for Donovan called ''Changing Skin'' (premiere), set to lush, thrumming music by Julliet Russel. Donovan is a riveting performer, able to initiate a curlicued movement with, say, an arm and then allowing that movement to captivate her entire torso. The images she etches in space recall the challenge of drawing an entire world on a page without once lifting your pencil from the paper. She's that organic in her approach. ''Changing Skin'' is a dance bordering on ritual.

Also a solo for Donovan, ''Strange Attractor'' (1994), which is set to music by Michael Oster, is more spare but similarly attracting. Motored by a pair of spiraling wrists, it's a compendium of curves and crouches cut, now and then, by abrupt downward arm slices and hands petting a belly. Particularly striking is how Donovan shapes her movements: They're powered by impulses that spring from her core rather than any external preconception.

The four group pieces are not nearly as tightly knit. Perhaps that's because Donovan has her dancers participate in the choreographic process. The most intriguing of them is ''Conversation Out of Silence'' (premiere), set to Gregg Bendian's soundscape of rain, breaking glass, and bowling-alley noises, and so on. A dance for eight, it was inspired by Donovan's admiration for the Quakers as independent thinkers. And the theme comes through, as the dancers operate in their own worlds or in groups that play, say, three dancers against two against three in canons or unison sequences. The dance has indelible motifs: two fingers pressed against lips, hands as claws. But the momentum that sparks it just can't carry through. Import ultimately wins out over image.

A similar problem, but more intense, plagues ''Chasing a Thicker Skin'' (premiere), a quartet set to music by Michael Galasso, and ''The Color Green'' (1999, revised 2002), a quintet with music by Damien Simon. The latter is the weaker of the two, meandering despite its crisp crisscrossing feet and smooth arm caresses. The former, based on a poem by Sarah Tyler laden with images of a snake, is striking primarily for the gesture at its core: a single woman tracing a line up her middle. The contrast of bare hand against velvet top suggests the push and pull of growing.

Finally, there's ''Plunge'' (1997), which offers seven dancers punctuating Strauss's ''Blue Danube Waltz'' with the sound of seven plungers thwunking off the floor, off a thigh, off a partner's hip. The invention and Donovan's disregard here for meaning provide a breath of fresh air.

Changing Skin

Kelley Donovan & Dancers

At Green Street Studios, Cambridge, last night. Program repeats tonight.

This story ran on page C5 of the Boston Globe on 10/19/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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