When does a 12-step program involve dance steps? When it's Harrison McEldowney's "Group Therapy," a comic ballet about four couples sorting through their issues in pas de deux.
Western New York was first introduced to McEldowney's wry sensibilities in February, when Configuration, a company based in Cape Cod but with strong local ties, performed the choreographer's spunky tribute to Irving Berlin at the Center for the Arts.
This time, rather than "Mr. Monotony," we were introduced to a chain smoker, a narcoleptic and "Mr. Clean" (Momchil Mladenov), an obsessive-compulsive whose partner (Sarah Jane Taylor) wishes he would stop wiping his hands when they get down and dirty.
The burlesque wit of McEldowney's choreography makes it a logical program ender, and that was just where his troupe of graceful neurotics found themselves on Configuration's satisfying bill.
The program opened on an abstract note, with the world premiere of Graham Lustig's "Six Pianos" set to music by Graham Fitkin. There were just as many dancers as pianos, each of them diving into Lustig's allegro maneuvers with equal parts elegance and daring.
This is an intense ballet, chock-full of athletic rolls and inventive partnering. For all of the ballet's androgynous appeal, though, its emphasis on speed and flexibility clearly favors the female frame. The men struggled to keep pace in several passages, resulting in fumbled timing.
Configuration drew only a meager crowd to the Center for the Arts; presumably more seats would have been filled were it not for the competition of Curtain Up! As if to acknowledge the downtown theatrics, Catherine Batcheller and Mladenov offered a mini drama of their own, portraying one of literature's most famous illicit lovers in Michael Shannon's "Madame Bovary Pas De Deux."
The couple's clutching lifts and twirling embraces, fused with the haunting melody of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concert No. 2, captured the lovers' giddy passion and guilty pleasures. Their liquid partnering and Batcheller's rich expressiveness delivered the pathos of the doomed protagonist straight from the pages of Flaubert's novel.
"Al Hakeem wa Ttawwaafuun," the second world premiere of the evening, was translated in the program as "The Wise Men & the Roamers." As if in lamentation, packs of dancers in harem pants throw their hands upward and fall to their knees. The posturing is submissive at times, defiant at others, depending, it seems, on the group's reception to the wise man of the ballet's title.
It was also, frankly, a bit stagnant and repetitive. Happily, the dancer portraying the wise man, Victor Quijado, had an opportunity to do less posing and reveal a friskier side to his personality in "Group Therapy."
As the frustrated beau of a chain smoker (Laura Faria), he's all rubbery-limbed indignation, an angry lover who's more than a bit addicted to his nicotine gal.
Codependency never looked so fun. For that reason, Configuration might just be habit-forming.