Claire Porter and Sara Juli: The Lectern
★★ ½
Tuesday, June 20
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

As to what can be “dance,” I’m super permissive. As long as bodies in space are at the core somehow, I’m on board, no matter how much interdisciplinary stuff—video, text, visual art, theater, whatever—gets piled on top. Of course, there’s the risk of a dance piece accidentally turning into something else entirely if the foundation isn’t strong enough to bear the load. But even then, if it works as what it is, I’m down, because the rewards in this high-stakes game are subspecies of art that didn’t precisely exist before—the best kind.

So at Reynolds Theater on Tuesday night, I didn’t mind that Claire Porter and Sara Juli’s The Lectern, an ADF commission in its world premiere, was exactly the sort of thing detractors would automatically sniff at as “not dance,” which is fair enough if you subtract the contempt. I didn’t mind that movement played a distinct secondary role to the demanding timed delivery of an intricate, animated text, where the most substantial choreography of the evening resided. But I know high-concept sketch comedy when I see it, and even in that frame of reference, The Lectern felt inchoate.

Juli and Porter last appeared at ADF together in 2015, but it’s Juli’s riotous solo show last year that probably remains at the forefront of most local memories, maybe forever. Tense Vagina: An Actual Diagnosis somehow blended mad karaoke and interesting movement with a postpartum urinary incontinence PSA and packaged it as an evening of intimate, interactive rambunctiousness at Motorco. The Lectern probably would have felt better there than it does on the proscenium stage, that ancient screen, where snappy banter naturally feels more like TV than it does rattling amid the plastic chairs of a nightclub floor.

The Lectern jumps from one chatty vignette to another: the pair as some sort of drill sergeant gym teachers giving graduation speeches, a pianist wheeled out for Juli’s off-key torch song about a bathtub, and Porter doing color commentary on an imaginary race between horses with names like “Unintended Consequences,” at which point we brush the upper rim of Abbott and Costello. Fresher comedy comes when Porter and Juli talk over each other in staggered stereo, weaving incantations of complaint and admonishment, wordplay and contradiction. They’re smart, adroit comedic writers and actors who can enliven repetition with sheer inflection, and they created an unusual level of energy for ADF. You aren’t going to hear anyone scream “Wooooo!” at Paul Taylor, at least not without censure.

But what did it all mean; what did it feel like? Other than a kind of enervating jangle, some stuck state of panic about protocols and rules, I don’t know. One prominent motif, a fashion runway, seemed to exist just to inject some dance-pop energy into the proceedings, but the stage pictures in them were dull and silly, the satire’s target extraordinarily broad. There were slower scenes that enchanted me, though, and I wanted more of them to cut the frantic edge. Juli and Porter lifting their arms in red elbow-length gloves as a curtain rose on a dining room table under a night sky was an image of composed wonder; a section where the pair ran, froze, and gestured at underwater speed, in a rich suspension of strobes and drones, had a self-contained gravitas.

The Lectern is hasty when it claims to have reached a verdict. From the audience, it was hard to even guess what was on trial. But there’s enough life and grain in the piece to imagine that, with some revision to pare away excess and link up the remainder, it could stand with the best of Juli and Porter’s whatever-they-ares.