Helen Simoneau presented a nicely varied, solid evening at BAM Fisher, with a three-piece program that included two New York premieres. Her company, Helen Simoneau Danse, splits its time, somewhat improbably, between New York and North Carolina, and it is surprisingly easy to see this in Ms Simoneau’s work. It is far from the post-post-modern world of dance theater, heady press material and miniscule movement. What she offers is decidedly more collegiate, incisive and well-phrased at its best, and bland at its worst.

Paper Wings © Rachel Shane
Paper Wings
© Rachel Shane

This collegiate feel makes sense when applied to her first piece of the evening, Paper Wings, as it was commissioned by the American Dance Festival in 2012. Ms Simoneau has assembled a large cast, and she knows how to justify its size. The piece is well-sectioned and well-grouped, and it is also well-danced by its young cast. But its vocabulary – slicing arms and flung grand battemans – is too familiar to be exciting. And though a program note directs the audience to Ms Simoneau’s intention to dissect female dichotomies and occasionally competitive relationships, there is little to suggest this other than costumes of pink, mauve and lavender tops and some provocative hip sways. What relationship exists among the cast is difficult to ascertain; glances are rarely exchanged, and there are few moments of partnering. A moment of welcoming unsettledness arrives when the dancers drop to the floor, on their backs, and prop their lower halves skyward with their elbows. Their legs dangle freely, well above their heads, like seaweed strands. Hannah Darrah and Candance Scarborough lend this occasionally frothy piece some much-needed gravitas.

the gentleness was in her hands © Rachel Shane
the gentleness was in her hands
© Rachel Shane

Ms Simoneau’s solo, the gentleness was in her hands, is small, introspective, repetitive. Clad in a long-sleeved white t-shirt and beige trunks, she is an articulate, wonderfully compact mover. Three lights rest on the marley in a triangle; they delineate a space for Ms Simoneau to dance within and, at the end of the piece, extinguish one by one. Ms Simoneau is most compelling when she contorts her body into awkward and grotesque positions, as when she forces her legs into a large split and rests her torso on the ground. Her chin is up and we can see her rapidly blinking eyelids. But an overarching smooth dynamic makes the piece feel too gentle.

Her final piece, among the newly familiar, is, again, carefully structured and well-danced, particularly by the ever-expansive Burr Johnson and his seeming counterpart, the tightly-coiled Pierre Guilbault. The score’s opening driving rhythm is a nice change of pace, and it’s fascinating to see the dancers bouncing from side to side on their toes, something like football players preparing for a game. It is as if they have been holed up backstage in this same formation, dribbling their own bodies, until this moment.

But among the newly familiar ends up being little more than a series of solos. Mr Johnson appears to lead the piece – he works his wonderfully long body into mesmerizingly fluid shapes – but all of the dancers keep close tabs on each other. While one performs a solo in the center, the others watch from the sides of the stage, squatting or standing. There is tension but also appreciation for each others’ craft in this watching – it feels a bit like tigers pacing in a cage, waiting to be fed, but there is no explosion or real release.

Ms Simoneau’s choreography is obviously carefully crafted, but such carefulness has led to careful movement and even careful dancing. It could do with some carelessness, I think.