AFTER choreographer Marta Renzi auditioned a cluster of trained dancers and "non-dancers" in Baltimore last spring, a vision formed in her mind. It was dictated by the disparate talents and fortunes of those she chose to work with during this year's Diverse Works.
Among her impromptu troupe, are an accomplished Irish step dancer, a man who is HIV positive, and a woman who suffers from diabetes. Seven other individuals, some svelte and polished, some ungainly and undisciplined, add to her eclectic mix.
"It was a very rich pallet to work with," Renzi says. "I met them and then for two months, I could dream."
This weekend, Renzi's dream comes to life in the seventh annual Diverse Works program, sponsored by Maryland Art Place. The three-week residency program pairs nationally recognized performers with regional actors, artists and dancers who together develop far-ranging works-in-progress. In addition to Renzi, theater director Kaia Calhoun and performance/visual artist Jonas dos Santos are participating in this year's program.
During Monday's rehearsal, Renzi and company polish "Vital Signs." What emerges as a ceili -- a lively Irish dance party, tightly controlled by social ritual -- soon slips its facade to become a sparring match between the sexes. When the lusty music of the Pogues, an Irish band, segues to a spine-tingling Van Morrison lament, the layer of sexual animosity and misunderstanding also gives way -- to the bare bones of human fraility and a dance of ineffable sadness and acceptance.
Accordingly, the dancers strip to their underclothes. Physical flaws and beauty contrast and eventually merge as the entire company is transformed by the man who may contract AIDS, and the diabetic woman who wears an eye patch and a glucose control device around her middle. It is a potent conclusion in a work propelled by mood swings.
Muscled, tanned, with curly hair pulled into a pony tail, and wearing a tank top, khaki shorts and old running shoes, Renzi, 37, resembles a camp counselor, cheering young charges on an orienteering expedition. Her sturdy physical presence is a strong psychological lever for making this 3-week-old company performance-ready.
It is the first time that Renzi has worked with non-dancers. When she receives a commission, "usually they give me my choice of dancers. That's different than my choice of performers," she says.
Working with those who have no dance background meshes with Renzi's approach to her art. Since she began performing and making dances in the late 1970s, Renzi has stressed down-to-earth, natural movement that purposely does not show off the virtuousity that lies beneath. Introducing non-dancers serves as a catalyst for making a dance "more natural and less 'dancy'," she said after Monday's intense rehearsal. Furthermore, a "natural presence can command interest by virtues" other than dancing ability, she says.
In other ways, Renzi takes a democratic approach to dance. She frequently sets her work to the music of popular musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin, and performs regularly in parks, beaches and on other free stages. Often, Renzi also engages her audience in discussions of the work in progress, a practice that has annoyed some critics.
Renzi & The Project Co., based in New York, has a devoted following. Renzi has received many commissions and grants in the United States and in Europe and has made several works for video and film, including "Mountainview," a theater-dance piece created with filmmaker John Sayles and broadcast on PBS in 1989. Renzi's artistic risks and human commentary are beloved by critics such as Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice. Though appreciative, more mainstream critics do not always know what to make of her intuitive style.
"I'm old enough and have been around long enough so I don't rely on them," Renzi says of the reviews.
After a lull -- two young sons currently absorb the bulk of Renzi's attention -- "Vital Signs" has sparked her creative urge in new, exciting ways. "There's hardly any recycled material here," Renzi says. She hopes to take the work to New York, to show that she is "proud of working with people who are not from New York," and that the city that is the hub of so much dance activity "is not the beginning and end of careers and commissions."
Diverse Works is being performed in its entirety at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $5 and can be reserved by calling Maryland Art Place at 962-8565.