“Girl, Get Off” premiere — dancers (from left to right) Ashlee Merritt, Andy Lawson, Megan Pulfer, Ellen Akashi, Samanth-Jane Gray and Natalie McCall. Photo by Tracy Kumono

Clairobscur artistic director Laurie Sefton tackled meaty topics using a serious and sometimes morose tone at a concert she called “no option, choice, preference,” Saturday night at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

Her Clairobscur Dance Company, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, presented the world premiere of “Girl, Get Off,” a sensual piece about sexual exploration from a female perspective.

Ellen Akashi, dancing with unflagging power, starts the piece alone, flipping repeatedly from her back to her side, and crab walking on her elbows and heels. As the dance progresses, to a mixed score of original music by Bryan Curt Kostors and recorded songs by Apparat, Massive Attack, and others, Askashi is joined by the other dancers for couplings and rendezvous that suggest moments of lustfulness, but without pleasure or contentment. (Samantha-Jane Gray, Andy Lawson, Natalie McCall, Ashlee Merritt and Megan Pulfer round out the cast.)

Pulfer and Akashi. Photo by Tracy Kumono

Partly because sex has its own intense human movement language, it’s a frequent topic for dance. (And, another reason is, simply, because it’s sex.) But how to express oneself in an artistic way without becoming tawdry? Sefton has her dancers miming sexual positions, which, though an obvious course, didn’t make her specific points discernible. In skimpy or tight costumes (credited to Sefton with Leslie Karten and Ruth Fentroy) the dancers robotically rub their hands on their breasts and shake their behinds at the audience. They wrap their bodies around one another, forming relationships that sometimes end in jealous recriminations. At the end, Akashi extends her arms and limbs as the others pull strings from her black bikini costume, which suggested to me that her partners had taken little pieces of Akashi. What had she gotten from them? That was unclear, but there was little in their gestures or expressions that depicted even lustful pleasure let alone genuine human contact.

The evening opened with “desiccated earth/California,” which debuted last year, and which is about human misuse of the planet, according to program notes. There was a robotic quality to this piece, as well, with the piece’s characters reacting little to one another.

“desiccated earth”

Sefton’s movement language begins in, and is driven by, the upper body, so the dances can feel rooted in place. The dancers shuffle their feet or jump lightly while they are gesturing in double time, hands chopping the air, arms waving like windmills, or madly rippling their fingers. There’ a bit of a musical quality to this dichotomy, with the lower body acting as a piece’s rhythm, while upper reaches act as the melody.

Dancers enter and exit, occasionally scampering on a rectangle of grass, and this connection with a representation of something living and green caused a shift, some feelings of joy, even. But it was harder for me to decipher much of the code that seemed imbedded here.

The Bully of the title. Photo by Erich Koyama

This was not the case with the three sections from “Bully,” which is from 2012. These were very distinct portraits, first, of a self-loathing Bully—scarily and beautifully danced by Evan Swenson—second, the Gang members on auto-pilot, blindly following their leader, and, finally, the reaction of the Victim (an expressive Natalie McCall), who decides that death is the only way to escape the torment. This piece was organized as a series of vignettes. It is Sefton’s most-praised recent piece, and it’s easy to see why; her message and emotional tone are consistent and pure.

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