Working hard and heartily working. (courtesy Chris Herzfeld)

Taking a gamble does sometimes pay off. Despite the pouring rain, a late taxi, Thursday night malaise, and the memory of previous buzzkills at On the Boards, I made it to Tanja Liedtke’s Construct and am thrilled to be able to recommend it.

Three dancers—Kristina Chan, Alessandra Mattana, and Paul White—enter the stage in t-shirts, overalls, and tennis shoes (all of which are removed at one point or another) and use every bit of the construction-site set (drills, wooden planks, sawhorses, et al) to “build” a dance piece. Aside from an agile solo here and there—including incredibly emotive, muscular writhing across the stage in a shifting rectangle of light—they don’t stop working together for the next hour.

Chan and Mattana begin the show ramrod stiff while White run froms one to the other, frantically trying to keep them from toppling over like unsteady dolls. It’s the first instance of what proves to be an evening full of expert and consistently inventive physical comedy. Even in the piece’s darker moments, these three are pulling off bits that Buster Keaton would be proud of—White throws himself to the floor, tugs at his shirt and pulls himself up until he’s moved perfectly backward through an unsteady door frame without ever seeming to look behind him.

All three dancers manage effects you’d otherwise imagine only working in some elaborate, artful water ballet. I don’t mean to imply any cheesiness but to stress the fact that they’re doing things that you’d think wouldn’t be possible unless they were buoyed by a swimming pool: expressive leg calisthenics achieved while in a head stand; drops to the ground, knees twisted, that quickly send them floating back up again; and beautifully fluid, entangled arm movements that suggest embraces made in a calm, romantic sea (there are even ocean waves on the sound score).

The whole dance feels sparked by a happy humor and sensuality. It’s sometimes too charming—excessive miming with the wooden planks (they’re used as crosses, guns, crutches, etc.) gets awfully cutesy and when the trio stay smiley-faced in athletic tandem it makes even their sweatiest efforts resemble ambitious cheerleading.

But something remarkable is always about to happen. Liedtke’s choreographic imagination allows for unexpected, almost offhanded physical impulses. I simply stopped taking notes at one point so I could sit back and enjoy the surprises.

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