At Maude Baum and Company’s annual Spring Salon, a ladder serves as a stairway to hell.
On the 18-foot aluminum folding prop, a trio of dancers climb, slide, hang upside-down and plank between the rungs to portray the physicality and bravery of firefighters in a revival of “24 Hour Watch.”
The piece, which dates back to 1979, remains one of choreographer Baum’s best, as it combines her social conscience and innovation with her flair for theatricality. To create it, she spent hours with firemen at Albany’s House 6, watching them battle boredom and blazes. What those hours ultimately inspired is a homage that is as much a play as it is a dance. And thanks to a well-conceived script, the work still resonates today.
Featuring performers Diane DeGroat, Regina Felio and Whitney Forbes, “24 Hour Watch” begins slowly. The three sit around in folding chairs, smoking, clowning and watching passersby. The story of their equipment, their chores, and their unique working lives comes through as DeGroat leads a firehouse tour to unseen visitors. This is where the piece comes to life. DeGroat delivers an effective monologue on the strains of the job. As she tells about the heavy, electricity-conducting helmets, as well as the importance of acting on training rather than emotion, she transforms into the oft overlooked, but always devoted, firefighter.
Also impressive is the dancers’ interaction with the ladder. It’s tall and a bit wobbly, but Felio and Forbes scale it quickly, fearlessly demonstrating the urgency inherent in their calling. From its peak, in dark, reddish lighting to depict smoke and fire, the two boldly create the illusion of carrying up hoses, crawling through small spaces and cradling rescued bodies — some that don’t come down alive.
While the subject is heavy, Baum inserts enough calm and humor to relieve the audience of what could be a nail-bitingly intense ride. And in doing so, she shows all the faces — tender, serious and silly — of the heroes in House 6.
“24 Hour Watch” was the centerpiece in Friday night’s program. The evening began with two other Baum works, as well as a new jazz piece by dancer DeGroat. While offering new work is vital for the company’s survival and appeal to a wider audience, the Bob Fosse-inspired work, “Le Jazz Hot,” is incidental. It’s a student recital piece rather than a work of substance.
The opener, Baum’s “Spare Change,” from 1978, doesn’t hold up well. Five dancers prance in unison and mouth inaudible words while dressed in silver unitards wrapped and draped in tubing. The costumes look dated, but the piece overall is untenable.
Finally, “Sometimes in My Mind, Always in My Heart,” has its moments. The solos sketch out facets of womankind including passion, neuroses and nurturing. But the finale, where the four women join together inside a lycra-like tube loses the earlier momentum and, consequently, baffles.
It’s worth sitting through, however, to see “24 Hour Watch.”
The program will be repeated today at 2 and 7 p.m. at the eba Theatre, 351 Hudson Ave. More information is available at 465-9916 or www.eba-arts.org. Firefighters and their families are admitted at a discount.