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La MaMa Festival Is Still Moving, if Somewhat in Place

This year’s La MaMa Moves! adds up to a picture of the moment: a little provisional, with flashes of promise.

A new year is underway, and theaters remain closed in the United States. Vaccines are finally being distributed, but the virus is still spreading. Facing this uncertain situation, many dance artists and dance presenters seem to be in a holding pattern — done with the makeshift projects of 2020 but unsure what, if anything, to try next.

That might account for the provisional feel of this year’s La MaMa Moves! dance festival. Last year’s, scheduled for May, was canceled, but several of the artists have been invited to contribute to a virtual substitute, rotating programs and artist discussions streaming on the La MaMa website Tuesday and Wednesday and Jan. 26 and 27. Solos, short videos and works in process add up to a picture of the moment: not much that’s finished or substantial but with flashes of promise all around.

Kevin Augustine’s “Body Concert,” up first, is in the work-in-progress camp. The artistic director of Lone Wolf Tribe, Augustine is a skilled puppeteer and a puppet maker. His latest project involves foam-rubber body parts — hands, legs, eyes, all skinless like flesh-baring anatomy models — which he manipulates in a black body suit and face-covering mask. Rather than presenting this project in video form, he gives us a kind “making of” advertisement for it.

Many of the performance fragments resonate unsettlingly. There’s something both tender and disturbing in watching fingers attached to a flayed arm palpate a flayed leg, especially when the exposed bones touch like foreheads pressed together. But the behind-the-scenes talk, along with needless reminders of how difficult current circumstances are, keeps squelching the illusion. It’s a 30-minute teaser.

Anabella Lenzu’s “The night you stopped acting,” similarly discursive, is disturbing in a different way. Addressing the camera directly, Lenzu shares some favorite music and bits of old dances, performed in the present with footage of her younger self over her shoulder. She milks a joke about the virtual assistant Alexa not understanding her Argentine accent. She alludes to the dictatorship in Argentina, and the history of people disappearing. What dominates, though, is her self-satisfied persona, which bursts out in wagging eyebrows and crazed smirks. The video seems inadvertently to be the portrait of someone who can’t stop acting. Is this a response to the times or is she always like this?

The most dance-centric selections come from the Norwegian choreographer Kari Hoaas. Instead of presenting a full work, she has adapted an earlier one, “Heat,” into several brief solos that she calls dance haikus. Shot in single takes in visually striking locations — a former airport in Oslo, converted into now-empty offices; a parking lot with a puddle that acts as a reflecting pool — the films are each titled with a single word and evince a haiku-like economy.

Or they nearly do. Largely composed of slow, crumpling motion, the pieces tend to end well: The dancer in “Grow,” framed on a staircase, finally descending out of the frame as if into water below; the dancer in “Lot,” who has been floundering on flat ground as if on a tightrope, exiting with a stumbly strut. Yet the essential action of each piece is diluted, or not strong enough to reverberate through reduction.

“The Yamanakas at Home,” by Tamar Rogoff and Mei Yamanaka, is another work in progress, but one presented without explanation. It’s a quiet, 10-minute film about a Japanese couple haunted by a figure in camouflage fatigues. Although shots of this figure on the stairs reminded me of creepy Bob in “Twin Peaks,” the ultimate impression is of a more benign spirit, one who apparently just wants to get down and dance.

That’s a desire shared by the protagonist of Rogoff’s other contribution, “Wonder About Merri,” a 2019 short that serves as inspirational coda for the festival. Merri Milwe has dystonia, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary spasms. We learn this, usefully for us if implausibly for her, when she looks up her condition in the dictionary.

At the end of the five-minute film, after Merri has responded to music booming from a car by rising from her wheelchair and dancing on the sidewalk, an episode the film treats as a miracle, she crosses out the definition and writes in a rejoinder: “So why can I dance?”

Without more explanation, the question feels a little forced. Who said she couldn’t? But the implicit answer is one that not only dancers could use hearing. Just as a condition doesn’t define a person, Merri seems to show, so circumstances can’t fully confine a dancing spirit.

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