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Collective's 'Launch' puts gym to good use

Dance Collective's new program, "Launch," is so mixed media that it includes a tennis ball machine, acknowledgement that the company is performing this weekend in a Boston University gym. Modern dance has been relegated to the gym or the church basement since its birth, and eventually got around to turning unorthodox settings into a plus, which is what happened with "Not Never Anywhere," by Olivier Besson and Liz Roncka, billed as "improvisational collaborators."

Their work falls into the broad "Where Else Can We Dance?" genre that locates performances in swimming pools and skating rinks, anything to get away from an ordinary stage. In "Not Never Anywhere" the escape route was a pair of ropes, each with several ominous noose-like loops.

The two dancer/choreographers began joined together as one, silhouetted against Mike Hall's video of an urban skyline that darkened as the 40-minute piece proceeded, accompanied en route by the haunted music of singer Guy Mendilow and percussionist Mark Nathanson.

Dance Collective is in its 31st season; the original directors have retired. But the intense and enigmatic relationship between the two dancers in "Not Never Anywhere" is reminiscent of one of the Collective's greatest pieces from the past, Martha Armstrong Gray's martial arts duet "Flowering Into New Battles." "Not Never Anywhere" doesn't go anywhere, although the airplane that crosses Hall's screen every now and then hints at progress from point A to B. The knotted ropes suggest a climb that never really happens -- but not much else happens either. The two dancers are either trapped together or individually trapped in the web of ropes. The loveliest parts are when they swing -- a whiff of freedom here, also a whiff of "Tarzan" -- a motion it's easy to identify with and even envy. Who doesn't love to swing?

The couple trade ropes, they roll on the floor, but they never define, much less reach, a destination. To their credit, the puzzle of their relationship outweighs the gymnastics. It's not a dance about physical tricks. Neither is it a dance with a resolution: The two end dangling separately in the dark, and leave the audience dangling too. There's not enough substance beforehand to make the existentialist ending work. This is a case of dancers acting as their own choreographers when they really need direction from someone outside.

Still, there was an intriguing elegance about the piece, a sense of potential that made it worth watching. What was more worth watching was a series of black and white photographs by Ken Richardson shown on a computer monitor in the makeshift lobby. You have to watch the whole series -- only a few minutes -- once or twice to get the point that it is about travel, voyages, and vehicles, starting with a woman on a dirt road and progressing to vehicles elevated on pedestals, as if they needed no human contribution at all.

Deadline and the program's late start because of traffic caused by a Red Sox game forced me to leave at halftime; I missed the piece with the tennis ball machine. What I'd seen by then was enough to make me regret not being able to stay.

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