Deborah Riley’s Anniversary Presents
By Sarah Kaufman

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

Choreographer Deborah Riley doesn’t do irony, so you can take her at her word. And her message was clear in the three works performed by Deborah Riley Dance Projects on its well-crafted 20th anniversary tribute program Saturday at Dance Place: Find yourself a comfortable spot, and stick with it. Be strong, but don’t overpower. And never forget who your friends are.

Those themes might sound simplistic, but simplicity and earnest, optimistic innocence are a good part of Riley’s enduring appeal as a choreographer. Her works are not puzzles to solve. They are unfailingly straightforward, composed of the clean lines and uncluttered spacing she inherited from her years dancing with Douglas Dunn, the highly regarded disciple of Merce Cunningham. It’s that openness and air, along with a prevailing serenity, that sets her work apart on the local scene.

“Steel Angel,” “Old Cronies” and a work-in-progress called “Place” offered a useful snapshot of Riley’s long career, which as of recently includes her role as co-director of Dance Place with founder Carla Perlo. “Steel Angel” was the first work she created here, after arriving from New York to teach and answer phones in the cramped Adams Morgan walk-up that was Dance Place, before the black-box theater and studio space moved to its current Brookland address.

“Steel Angel’s” images of strength — the clenched fists and curled biceps — may look cliched, but there is something compelling about this piece beyond any particular gesture or moment. It’s not the predictable view of grandeur and personal specialness; in a self-possessed solo (danced with velvety calm by Nicole YM McClam) and an ensemble section, this work unspools an unabashed revelation — that you don’t lose power in sharing it.

“Old Cronies,” from 2000, is one of Riley’s most conceptually complete works, and its core idea, the friendship of women, was underscored in a synergy of execution, music and decor. Kim Power’s set design — long strips of brightly patterned fabric stretched on vertical wooden frames, so they resembled pillars — allowed the space to be swiftly reshaped, so it was now a circle for a tightly focused solo, now a solid background of color.

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