There's a type of virtuosity in dance that is all about "more." Like the Olympic motto ("higher, faster, farther"), the emphasis is on the physical achievement, the thrill of kinesthetic extremes. But there is another kind of skill that concentrates on expressive facility and sophistication, in which an arm raised in a simple gesture can be as virtuosic a moment as a flurry of multiple turns. Ironically, in a typical career, a dancer masters the "more" much earlier than the "less," so their interpretive talents are flourishing just as their athletic prowess begins to wane. Next Stage Dance Theatre is a vanguard group designed to avoid this unhappy coincidence by offering works that emphasize the strengths of mature dancers rather than asking them to emulate the physical ability of neophytes. In a field where careers are frequently over before age 30, this artistic philosophy is a radical change, and 51/2 (through Saturday, April 2, at Broadway Performance Hall; 206-325-6500) is Next Stage's celebration of just over five years of performing in this different vein.
The best of the company's program takes advantage of this focus, crafting works with a rich emotional undercurrent. Steve Casteel's "Simply Roaring . . . though I shouldn't have to" offers, with the speed of a snapshot, detailed portraits of three women: Paula Peters crackles through a series of turns, relentlessly determined to continue, shoving a chair in a burst of frustration; Janis Zetlen swims coolly in the space, punctuating her dance with occasional rapid outbursts; and Dominique Gabella appears like the ghost of a Spanish dancer, her back arched proudly and her hands curved around imaginary castanets.
In her own choreography for "Four by Four in 4/4," Zetlen presents a quartet of slightly prissy concertgoers, graciously condescending to one another with affected aplomb. The performance could easily slip into caricature, but Zetlen knows where the boundary is and deftly stays on one side of it.
For "Synching," choreographer Holly Eckert mines her tenure in dance to examine the mechanics of performing with other people, of being "in synch" with one another. Opening with a voice-over conversation about reconstructing an old dance, Gabella, Zetlen, Mary Kay Bisignano-Vadino, and Carolyn Rosenfield move tentatively through fragments of dance phrases, nodding to themselves or each other when the pieces line up. After establishing those connections, the work plays with their logic, using canons or rounds with a satisfying rhythmic counterpoint to the 6/8 score. The piece closes with another voice-over, but this time it's about the end of a romantic partnership rather than the challenges of physical coordination—broadening the thematic exploration beyond dancerly concerns, and making us wonder if we had misread the earlier conversation.
While some of the works here use the particular skills of mature performers, others seem to use them to compensate for weaknesses in the choreography. Jesse Jaramillo, a longtime mainstay of the Seattle modern dance community, undercuts his "Chords of Belonging" with a too-literal connection between movement and text: As Bisignano-Vadino bears down in order to "give birth to herself" and later picks imaginary fruit from "the tree of love," the dance feels much less subtle than the woman performing it.
In its best forms, though, that kind of composition—linking verbal with kinetic meaning—is drawn from an earlier stream in modern dance, and reflected in much of the company's repertoire. But if they're going to try to embody that aesthetic, why not go the whole way and perform older works? Early modern choreographers like Isadora Duncan exemplified the same kind of emotional integrity that Next Stage claims for itself. Perhaps it should use the accumulated skills of its ensemble on that substantial repertory by taking a bold step backward.