Dying to Dance

Dancers from Portugal tease death with virtuosity; a Korean-born New Yorker tries it on

The fados of Portugal are songs of love, loss, despair, and death, born from the travails of a seafaring folk. Non-Portuguese listeners to recordings by the late, great fado singer Amália Rodrigues may not understand what lost ships tear at her heart or that a lover is wine and bread to her. But we thrill to the tides surging through her dark voice.

Vasco Wellenkamp, co-artistic director (with Graça Barroso) of Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporâneo, has choreographed three works inspired by her for three different companies plus Amaramália—Abandono for his own group. Seldom alluding in this latest piece to the words being sung, he creates a flood of turbulent images, linking the songs with eerie and somber musical collages by Carlos Zíngaro. Like Jíri Kylían and several other contemporary European choreographers, Wellenkamp is not afraid on occasion to allow his extraordinarily skilled dancers to look clumsy or peasant-earthy. They hurl themselves at the floor and each other; they arch and twist their torsos and throw their heads back; their arms and legs thrash the air. High emotion is an almost constant state, an ongoing flow that runs through their bodies like hot syrup.

Watching this never modulating, high-intensity suffering for an hour and 10 minutes is eventually numbing. Fortunately, Wellenkamp has anchored Amaramália—Abandono by means of some calmer background actions or by placing watchers on the benches that form Wilson Galvão's movable set. And the piece begins arrestingly with couples locked in anesthetized embraces in some limbo of a dance hall (dramatically lit by Orlando Worm).

Caged/uncaged: While Amália sings
photo: Rodrigo César
Caged/uncaged: While Amália sings

The relationships that crop up, however, are not serene. Three men in underwear slide over each other with muscular eroticism on the floor, while Rita Judas retreats to the brick niche at the back of the Joyce stage. Gustavo Oliveira pushes onstage a barred cell on wheels; Rita Reis crouches within it, and Gúzman Rosado, inert, lies draped over the top. While Rodrigues's voice weeps a farewell, the three smoothly execute drastic, eye-grabbing maneuvers in and on the cage. Women form suffering sisterhoods, men kneel and clasp their partners as if it would take a lightning strike to separate the pair, and, in a rare quiet moment, Oliveira threads his way through a forest of still people. Later, after he and Patrícia Henriques (both especially fabulous performers) twine together around and on the benches, Henriques dances a strenuously tragic solo while Rodrigues's words imagine the manner of her death. The final image of the piece is of her hanging limply over an upended bench.

The audience was not too exhausted by the nonstop orgy of impassioned dancing to cheer the 15 heroic performers and Amália's enduring spirit.

Koosil-ja's disturbing and brilliantly conceived new solo, deadmandancing EXCESS, views death more single-mindedly, combining charged images with disruptive yet subtly distancing forms. The piece is even more shaped by media than her last year's To You the Birdie (Phèdre). Via laptop, Geoff Matters and Tara Webb manipulate sound and videos, both live and taped, on 34 stacked monitors.

Never afraid to tackle big, dark subjects, Koosil-ja relentlessly examines mortality via death scenes in films. These change suddenly: The body in question hits the ground, and sound crashes into silence. It's as if the protagonist were channel surfing through movies on television, trying to affirm life by confronting death's terrors at their most dramatic.

The interplay of live and taped action gradually becomes clear. The many screens only occasionally show a movie's crucial moment; instead—on some or many screens—we see the scene in a frozen long shot and perhaps a few lines of dialogue. But we hear the soundtrack, with all its body blows, screams, and moans. Assisted by a busy "stage manager" (Aki Sasamoto), who brings Koosil-ja Japanese wooden platform shoes or a red cloth to lay before a rampaging bull as it charges into the arena, the choreographer performer silently and meticulously re-enacts the deaths. Every grimace, every hopeful stare, every stagger, every fall to earth. The monitors and wooden steps, plus the ropes and pulleys anchored to the floor and weighted with two enigmatic objects, form herlandscapes and facilitate her ordeals. In between demises, she matter-of-factly gears up for the next one. Her costume is itself a montage: short white dress, half of a man's gray raincoat, and a swag of scarlet material that can be stretched out to stand for a kimono sleeve.

Most of us, if we turn our heads, can see the movie scenes themselves on TV sets behind the audience. The clips include ones from the Japanese classic Utou, The Seventh Seal, Philadelphia, and many more that I don't recognize. Some episodes are over in an instant: Koosil-ja grabs a shower curtain and races to fall with it, while screens show a shower rod with empty hooks. Others, like the death of a samurai (Toshiro Mifune), turned into a pincushion by enemy arrows, take forever. Philadelphiaprovides the hopeful ending: Koosil-ja dances raptly while Tom Hanks listens to Maria Callas singing and tries to describe what that life-affirming beauty means to him. The last words we hear are, "Miguel, I'm ready." From one long, anguished night of watching supercharged cinematic deaths, might we learn acceptance?

 
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