Whiting plays with paradox, juxtaposition

You might conclude that Maureen Whiting's "Unravel Unrelated Events" is a formal affair, judging by the abundant ruffles festooning the tuxedo shirts and old-fashioned panties worn by the choreographer and her dancers.

But that would mean you had somehow missed the wind-up-toy chickens laying candy eggs, the feather boas, the tall, matted blue fur hat (think Marge Simpson mid-hurricane), the flying-buttress skirts, and of course, Whiting's penchant for making faces.

Whiting, whose latest work premiered Friday night at On the Boards Studio Theater, reveals that choreography need not stop at the neck.

Her playful use of facial expressions not only brings humor and levity to her dances, it also lends them an air of commonality. The grimaces, goofs and Dizzy Gillespie cheeks invite us closer. We may never be able to perform her delicate hand and foot articulations or strenuous feats of balance, but we can all stick out our tongues.

The repetition of several such small, mundane movements throughout the six numbers offers a sense of continuity and teaches us a new sign language. By program's end, we are fluent: Several quick, small taps of the fingers against the breastbone means, "I need to collect myself for a second." A brisk, upward pull of one hand from navel to neck means, "I'm ready for whatever comes next."

Sticking out the tongue — wide and downward, toward the chin — in combination with a strong exhale, signifies a sudden intrusion of world-weariness.

Whiting juxtaposes her light, fluttery movements with heavy, thunking thrusts, embodying an enforced stillness punctuated by sudden and vigorous lunges at freedom.

At times she teeters and totters on toe shoes (disguised as fluffy blue booties), at others she drags leaden limbs across the floor.

In several numbers, the dancers consciously move one body part with another — the right hand lifts the left, a finger pokes the back of a knee to bend it, and in one instance, a dancer appears to carry her own foot off and onstage with both hands.

In the final segment, two dancers seem nearly bound to the earth, thwacking their bodies against the floor like great dorsal fins.

The body has a mind of its own, Whiting implies, a feeling reinforced by the contrasting airy, twitchy hand movements. Fingers are especially unpredictable, as they jump to scratch itches, drum and wiggle against each other, and crawl into unsuspecting mouths.

Paradox is Whiting's purview, the energy she concocts erupting from the crux of opposites vibrating against each other: formal vs. informal; plodding vs. ethereal.

The resonance lies in the continual surprise of this dynamic — we are never certain on which side the coin will land next, but we can't take our eyes off its spinning, glinting form for even a second. With Whiting's powerful work, either way is a win.

Brangien Davis: brangiendavis@yahoo.com

Dance review

Maureen Whiting Co., "Unravel Unrelated Events," Friday, On the Boards Studio Theater