It was the kind of itinerary only a critic could love. I’d returned to the Northeast regionals of the American College Theatre Festival last week to teach their theater criticism intensive. After a week of shows, seminars and abbreviated sleep, I landed back at RDU at 7 p.m. last Saturday night–just in time to dash to Carrboro Yoga Company for Moving Pictures: Dance and Images, a one-night stand by dance photographer Steve Clarke and affiliated choreographers and dancers.

Dance insiders will remember that Clarke introduced the region to a cadre of new performers in December 2004 when he produced the audacious Focused Fluidity showcase at Carrboro Century Center. After that outing, mid-summer shows Multiple Exposure I & II at Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater exposed American Dance Festival attendees and others to a markedly uneven assortment of regional dancers/choreographers. At the time we concluded that, his considerable artistic gifts notwithstanding, Clarke still needed more development in order to become an effective dance curator and presenter.

In terms of venue and scope of programming, Moving Pictures was by far the most modest of the three. This one-hour showing featured three works by a quintet of dancers–and two on-stage collaborations with Clarke’s images, in a process he calls “photo-choreography.”

In the opening piece, “Multiple Exposure,” Clarke took photos of Heather Doyle and Kristen Osborne that were projected seconds later onto a large white screen behind the dancers. In the evening’s closing work, “The Haunt: Evading Corporeality,” Julie Mulvihill interacted with a series of previously-taken photographs projected on a lace curtain.

But throughout the evening artists were clearly constrained–and at times distracted or derailed–by the improvised staging area and technologies and techniques still being tested in performance.

The reach of cables, lights and projection patterns limited Doyle and Osborne to a claustrophobic performance area that had to be less than 10 feet by 6 feet in the first work of the evening. One of the flimsy, makeshift, plastic and black matte “wings” bordering the stage careened over when Camille DeSantis’ swift, arcing aerial leg hit it during the middle duet, “Something shed, this I become. And apparently caught up in true abandon, Mulvihill brought the set of curtains, curtain rods and side supports crashing down around her at the emotional peak of “The Haunt.”

So, granted, presentation issues were in play on Saturday night. But the performances and accomplishments we saw gave us food for thought–and reasons both to question and encourage Clarke in his research.

Begin with the beginning, “Multiple Exposure.” Yes, the photographs of the live dancers appeared seconds later on a screen behind them–but in dramatically low-lit sepia, black and white images, whose atmosphere and effect were markedly different than the brightly-lit live performance.

The images seemed to create visual echoes of the moments before, and a commentary on how memory–or technology, or both–can fundamentally change a lived experience.

Now more interesting choreography–and much more practice–is required to fulfill the promise of this technique. Osborne (who performed through an illness) and Doyle seemed hemmed in on all sides, preoccupied throughout the work. The pair seemed out of ideas before the end of the work, and repeated gestures–the most dubious of which involved each at different points slowly lifting the fronts of their skirts or slips up high between their legs: a baffling approximation of beginners’ strip-tease more than anything resembling dance.

Refreshment quickly followed in the robust–and at times alarming–choreography of DeSantis and Zahra Lohr in the duet “Something shed.” Illuminated by blue light, at first DeSantis stood behind Lohr, brusquely manipulating her head, upper torso and arms.

Then things really started getting rough. DeSantis jerked, manhandled and pushed Lohr’s form forward to the floor, before pulling her up and flinging her sideways across the room. Lohr’s subsequent, similarly dramatic solo was just abstract enough to make us wonder: Were we seeing a character reliving, re-embodying the abuse after the abuser had left? Were the strenuous, almost desperate upper arm movements meant to signal flight or a form finding difficulty maintaining balance? Could it have easily been all three?

But we cringed when DeSantis’ character was later reintroduced–before and after her errant kick took out the stage’s back right wing. Directed to never take her eyes off of Lohr, her melodramatic last looks, moves and gestures stereotyped stalking beyond the point of unintentional humor.

Even with Mulvihill’s Samson moment in “The Haunt: Evading Corporeality,” the dancer and Clarke managed to coherently present either a woman at odds with her own image, or a woman who’s been dislocated from it entirely. While a series of partially-nude black and white images are projected on a lace curtain, Mulvihill’s character sidles behind and through the fabric, troubling its surface from behind, stroking the parts of her body displayed upon it.

As the work develops, it appears that the character is trying to transfer the surfaces of the projected image onto her own, rubbing a section of the photograph, and then rubbing a corresponding part of her body.

Though this seems to momentarily succeed–when Mulvihill stands in just the right spot, sections of the photograph are projected on the surface of her white clothing–matters escalate when the transfer does not stay.

After using both hands to open her mouth as widely as possible–the most enigmatic image of this piece–Mulvihill’s silent, screaming character grabs insistently at the fabric, apparently trying to hug the image onto her own. Indeed, she was twisting and strangling the fabric in full intensity, apparently trying to get inside the picture when the screen’s structure came falling down about her Saturday night.

She kept moving, tangled up in the ancient-looking mesh, while the projected image now shone against a black backdrop–an echo of the woman that was darker, fainter and ghostlier than before. It seemed a completely logical conclusion for the piece, actually something of a coup de theatre–until, that is, Clarke’s on-stage intervention, remounting the screen alongside Mulvihill, revealed that it hadn’t been intended.

But with the dancer’s character repeatedly trying–and failing–to get inside the large, projected body, we’re left wondering why the dance’s subtitle speaks to “evading” corporeality when the roles seem reversed: Here, corporeality appears to be evading Mulvihill’s character, not vice versa. Perhaps the question would have been answered had the middle minute or so of the work not been replaced by set repairs.

Again in the final work, we noticed choreographic difficulties unrelated to tech. Particularly in the early parts, Mulvihill demonstrated a stiff, limited physical vocabulary and a notable lack of range, especially in the movements of the upper body. At points, the woebegone, devoted upward gaze of the photographed face and the dancer’s corresponding movements suggested a tortured duet between a Norma Desmond-like character and her former beauty. Whether intentionally or not, “The Haunt” veered toward satire at several points during the performance, with images and gestures a little too self-serious to be taken all that seriously.

All of these artists should be encouraged to keep working. All have much work still to do.

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