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Angel Acuna, Erica Ruse, and Minaqua McPherson. Photo: Doug McMinimy

Schrekstoff is a chemical the body produces when we’re afraid, an alarm signal that warns other animals of danger. Simply for bringing that delicious word into my awareness, I’m grateful to Lavina Rich, who titled her latest dance “Schrekstoff: What Are You Scared Of?”

Erica Ruse surrounded. Photo: Doug McMinimy

“Schrekstoff” debuted Sunday at the White Box Theater, as part of the Live Arts Fest. And, in addition to the title, the piece offered much to appreciate: clarity, humor, and strong performances by a five-member ensemble.

This highly narrative dance opens with a scream, crashing noises, and the dancers in a terrified cluster, like teens in a horror film approaching a haunted house. In a signature gesture, they stand quivering, arms extended tautly and held tight to their sides.

Rich then takes on five phobias—clowns, water, enclosed spaces, flying, and being alone—in often-funny vignettes: Minaqua McPherson’s clown phobia keeps getting triggered as the others bring on creepy clown dolls to freak her out. Angel Acuna’s aquaphobia seems to ease as a life preserver, swim cap, and goggles are tossed to him from the wings.

Erica Ruse shows comic flair as a flight attendant whose perky smile gets strained and her gestures frantic, as we hear noises that shouldn’t be coming from a plane.

Cecily Holcombe. Photo: Doug McMinimy

I didn’t always see the phobia listed in the program. For instance, in “Claustrophobia,” Cecily Holcombe cowers beside a bright light that makes her shadow huge, and I thought it was being afraid of your shadow. And when John Diaz and Erica Ruse stand face-to-face and touch, but with wrists crossed in front of them, keeping them from getting too close, I saw fear of intimacy, not “Monophobia” (fear of being alone).

Still, Rich communicates the idea of being gripped by fear with a clarity unusual in dance. That strength, however, is also a problem. In relying heavily on mime, Rich shortchanged the choreography. She didn’t give these top-notch dancers—all company members of San Diego Dance Theater—enough moves.

Nor, in the laundry list of phobias, was there as much depth as I’ve seen in her previous work. She warned the audience beforehand that we might get scared. I wish. The only emotion I felt was humor. Which was done well. But I’d be curious to see what might happen if she had generous rehearsal time (a rare commodity), and she and these dancers could really dive into the phenomenon of fear.

Live Arts continues through Sunday with a different performance each night.

Janice Steinberg

Janice Steinberg

Award-winning dance journalist Janice Steinberg has published more than 400 articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She was a 2004 New York Times-National Endowment for the Arts fellow at the Institute for Dance Criticism and has taught dance criticism at San Diego State University. She is also a novelist, author of The Tin Horse (Random House, 2013). For why she's passionate about dance, see this article on her web site, The Tin Horse

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