John Cage liked to say “I have nothing to say – and I’m saying it.” In that positive sense, “The Principles of Uncertainty” feels nothingy. A dance-theater collaboration between the choreographer John Heginbotham and the writer-designer Maira Kalman, this is an inconsequential collage of history, travel, memory, objects. It passes the time, which, as Vladimir and Estragon observe in “Waiting for Godot,” would have passed anyway. But to what end?
And if there is no point, does that matter? “The Principles of Uncertainty” is also the name of a 2007 book by Ms. Kalman that is, as she has described it, “profusely illustrated.” Both the book and stage production suggest days in our lives, in other people’s lives; this part-dance staging, as if flicking from channel to channel, is an anthology of fragments or quotations or replicas, most unfamiliar but not all. Everything is agreeable; too little seems importantly memorable.
One of the running themes here is the nothingy way that most of us discuss the weather every day. As the audience enters the BAM Fisher auditorium, the dresser-like cupboard on one side of the stage contains a screen showing a volcano’s rim glowing red. And the performance begins with talk of the weather in Pompeii just before the famous eruption of Vesuvius.
No explosion follows, however, and the first dance is a neat little affair to a song in Neapolitan dialect. There are 12 people onstage: the six performers of Dance Heginbotham (four women, two men); the four musicians of the Knights; and Ms. Kalman and Daniel Pattrow, who both speak (entertainingly, touchingly, melodiously) and occasionally dance (rather well).
There seems no uncertainty at all about any of the first dances: they’re metrically regular, with end-stopped phraseology, and their vocabulary looks strongly derivative of that of Mark Morris, with whom Mr. Heginbotham danced for many years. As matters proceed, however, the dances grow a great deal more metrically intricate. And there are suggestions that “The Principles of Uncertainty” is an essay in indeterminacy. We see there’s a strawberry shortcake in the wings: a preview of forthcoming attractions? But no, on Wednesday’s opening night nobody brought it on stage. Maybe the show allows for it to make an appearance at some performances, maybe it’s a deliberately false lead.
During the central section of “Principles,” the dancers continually behave as if they’re playing a game that could have another outcome. I don’t care for the way the dancers all project the mood of some shared in-joke — they’re telling us that something’s going on that’s more fun for them than for us — but I enjoy the suspense. At the start of one section a man stands all ready to join in; but he never does. “Principles” doesn’t look improvised, but it does look as if it has multiple options.
There are group sequences that look like deconstructions of partnering (one couple moves together, but other dancers show us isolated halves of couple dancing); I wish this did not powerfully evoke a more sustained and memorable sequence of such deconstruction in Mr. Morris’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” and I wish the words on the backdrop did not include both “allegro” and “penseroso.” It’s fine that Mr. Heginbotham takes some ideas from Mr. Morris (all choreographers are magpies, Mr. Morris not least) but Mr. Heginbotham doesn’t need to keep adding these “School of Mark Morris” labels to his work.