The "Inventors" segment of the encyclopedic La MaMa Moves festival rests entirely on the work of two choreographer-dancers: Christopher Williams (a rising star at Fall for Dance, and known for his Petrushka in Basil Twist's production) and his onetime teacher, Douglas Dunn. Seeing their works side-by-side (or, in the wee La MaMa Club Theater, cheek-by-jowl), we can see the tenacious linkages between the dance generations, the ways instructors bear their students along with them for a while, before seeming to fall behind.
The Williams selections, all highly theatrical and featuring some top-notch athleticism, might have overshadowed Mr. Dunn's slower, simpler exercises, but for Mr. Williams's palpable love for the other man's work. He performs an excerpt from Mr. Dunn's 1987 "Peepstone," a short investigation of angles, with warm perfection. And Mr. Dunn also offers a vision into the future; perhaps in 30 years, Mr. Williams will also find himself mellowing on puppetry and text, as Mr. Dunn does in his bewitchingly minimal "Gestures in Red."
Mr. Dunn, when performing his requiem "Untitled" or the 1973 hymn-to-a-funny-polygon "Nevada," doesn't present work so much as practice it, in the same sense that one would practice yoga or meditation. Dressed in blue longjohns, Mr. Dunn moves unselfconsciously through long-remembered poses. A favorite position seems to be ballet's high-fifth, dropped low, as though the hands have become unbearably heavy. His steep lunges and inclines also bear witness to modern dance's love affair with gravity — lovely to see on a body that could so easily be complaining about it.
Then, after all his Mahler and Handel and Bob Dylan, Mr. Dunn lets his sly sense of humor peep out in "Haole," an adorable bit of fake hula done to Charles Kaipo and His Happy Hawaiians. His coy glances and demurring hand gestures recall Paul Lazar of Big Dance Theater, making flirtatious hay out of his grass skirt. He clearly wants to get comic mileage out of the "translations" of his mockhula, "Look at my beautiful cheeks" (he gives us a peep behind the grass curtain), and "Look at my beautiful hands." Of course, it's not that funny — his hands are still, after three decades, hard to ignore.
While Mr. Dunn lulls us into a sense of sweetness, the three saint pieces Mr. Williams presents, "Saint Francis of Assisi," "Saint James the Greater," and "Saint Pancras" jolt us with their sheer theatrical invention. In "Saint Francis," the corded Charley Scott, enters wearing a basketry bell that covers him head to feet, scuttling around with it on his back like a tiny, woven church. Emerging to shout Latin, the increasingly nude saint goes through his requisite conniptions. In this one case, Mr. Williams as puppeteer trumps Mr. Williams as choreographer — the saint's writhings and declamations work far less convincingly once he comes out of his shell.
But both "Saint James the Greater," set to gorgeously sung 12th-century Spanish liturgical music, and "Saint Pancras" interpret their patron-saints less literally, and far more movingly. In "Saint James the Greater," Aaron Mattocks played the titular disciple, capering friskily along a "beach" littered with human boulders, which then start to roll and cheep. As a chorus of young women unfolds around him, James looks more and more frantic, hopping in passé with his elbows sharply out. By the time they claim him, letting him recline across their legs and then raising him above the floor, the now-angels have rendered James's mysterious boat crossing to Spain. It's the goofy, exasperating side to exaltation we've all been missing: Just because they're heavenly doesn't make them good hosts.
Mr. Williams saves his strangest, saddest, and best for last — a Saint Pancras (Rommel Salveron) both attended and harassed by two church elders (Keith Sabado and Nicky Paraiso), who kill him while chiming in on a Tagalog version of William Caxton's turn-of-the-century praise song. Dressed in a sort of drag version of a Thai priesthood, the two "enforcers" pursue the butoh-white Pancras, all while maintaining a frightening, occasionally atonal drone. In his other saint pieces, religious ecstasy seems laughable, or, for St. Francis, combative. In his final, operatic offering, Mr. Williams actually induces it in his audience — leaving us with heads humming and our eyes firmly fixed on higher things.