Aspiring actors learn Shakespeare. Young musicians study Bach. For dancers, the opportunities to practice the acknowledged masterpieces in the field are too few. Dance often goes unrecorded, so the people who carry important choreography in their muscles and minds are precious resources.
Three such people have breathed life into this weekend's program by the Boston Conservatory Dance Theater. The great Martha Graham dancer Yuriko reconstructed Graham's 1948 "Diversion of Angels" for the conservatory students. Alberto Del Saz did the same with two Alwin Nikolais works: the 1953 "Noumenon Mobilus" and the 1955 "Tensile Involvement." He also reconstructed "Four Brubeck Pieces" (1984) by Murray Louis, who coached the dancers.
The result was that the performers conveyed not just steps but style. They showed Graham's emotions, which spring from the gut; Nikolais's geometric abstraction, which avoids emotion altogether; and Louis's rambunctious acrobatics. The flavor of each work was distinct and nuanced.
While the Louis piece is the most recent on the program, it's also the most dated. The choreography doesn't do justice to the subtleties of Brubeck's score. By the end, it descends to cheerleader level, irrepressibly cute. The dancers have been taught to sell the flamboyant piece, but they look like they genuinely love the chance to show off huge leaps, multiple turns, and tricks drawn from the vocabulary of acrobatics rather than modern dance.
Stretchy fabric is Nikolais's signature, part of the legacy of Bauhaus theater, where cloth and other materials transformed dancers into shapes. The two performers in "Noumenon Mobilus," Chad Ritter and Matthew Uriniak, are encased in white from head to toe. They look more like giant, animated teeth than people -- until the end, when the fabric suddenly shrivels and clings to their bodies. They become recognizably human.
The 10 dancers in "Tensile Involvement" use extremely long bands of stretch cloth that allow them to extend their range of movement and create ever-changing webs. The patterns and energy make for entertaining dance-as-visual-art. Nikolais's craftsmanship is unchallenged, but his choreography is too gimmicky to make me want a whole evening of it.
"Diversion of Angels" was the first dance Graham made in which she didn't appear. Set to an urgent, edgy score by Norman Dello Joio, skillfully played by the conservatory's own orchestra, "Diversion" is lyrical, without the story line that drives the majority of Graham's works. She was inspired by a Kandinsky painting that used color symbolically, which she translated into a work with three color-coded couples in different stages of love: The white pair are mature and stable; the red duo are erotic; the yellow couple are frisky adolescents. Graham's signature gestures are here, but the choreography is lighter and springier than her norm. The woman in red, Xiaolin Fan, and the one in yellow, Angela Buccini, deserve special praise for celestial performances. Graham once remarked that dancers should blaze across the stage: These women did.