Whose Land Is This?

A rough-and-tumble plunge into ambiguities of territory, relationships, and common ground

Some choreographers aim to clarify life by devising reassuring patterns. David Dorfman embraces the hugger-mugger of existence. In his marvelous 2004 Lightbulb Theory, Paul Matteson hurls himself onto Joseph Poulson, setting off a series of alarmingly messy tackles and falls that are not clearly about aggression or challenge or friendly roughhousing, but somehow about all three. Dorfman's new Older Testaments was sparked by the territorial conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but he avoids depicting two warring groups, except when, before the curtain lifts, arguments arise from a jangle of voices: "We'd like you to leave." "We're staying."

Texts in Hebrew, Arabic, and other scripts are projected, and the stage is piled and strewn with books (set design by Kris Stone). The dancers bandy the books about, but never dogmatically. To begin, Matteson, wearing a long black coat and gleaming in Jane Cox's lighting, stands in a glass case—a frail symbol of home, rife with the ambiguities of impermanence. While composer Frank London and the brasses in his small ensemble create vibrant klezmer chaos, Shani Collins, Tzveta Kassabova, Heather McArdle, Poulson, and Francis Stansky crowd in with Matteson and, yelping, push the box all over the stage, unable to settle on a location. McArdle and Matteson perform a careful duet in it; after they've fallen asleep, the others add a peaked roof and a low door and sneakily transport the "house" to a new location.

The hinged, three-sided case is also the locale for a couple of witty scenes. Matteson, crawling laboriously around, the case his snail shell, addresses the musicians: They should keep playing, no matter what happens onstage. Later, with everyone jammed together in it, Matteson introduces himself as "Dick." And where is he from? "From the Bible." It turns out all the men have the same name, and—wait for it—"There sure are a lot of Dicks in the Bible." (All the women are "Jane.")

People of the books: Dorfman's new Older Testaments
photo: Richard Termine
People of the books: Dorfman's new Older Testaments

The movement is arduous—slogging runs, wild tumbles, nervy contacts that approach car crash level—but there are also calm moments when people just stand and gaze, arms at their sides, hands crooked, like kids playing penguin. As they dance, they begin to shed Naoko Nagata's layered costumes. In the terrific conclusion, they crawl through the little door into the box and—naked, united—slowly move their abode over the rubble of books. I'd like to run the whole dance backward and try to understand how Dorfman reached this hopeful conclusion of renewal and rebirth. The rich, thoughtful piece is easy to love, harder to follow. He will undoubtedly prune and polish it. Lightbulb Theory now shines all the brighter for his editing, as well as for Stone's hanging bulbs, which, tangled overhead, fall into separate strands when five dancers, including the stellar Jennifer Nugent, begin ingenious variations on the choreographer's magnificent opening solo—limbs whirling, minds and bodies ablaze.

On the 20th anniversary of David Dorfman Dance, a new duet, approaching some calm, to Guy Klucevsek's fine accordion playing, riffs off one made 10 years ago. The relationship between the performers, Dorfman and Lisa Race, has deepened. They are in their forties, they have a four-year-old son, and they know each other very well. Every difficult maneuver seems like a compact or an agreed-upon trial (she attempts logrolling on his substantial body; "come on, let me swing you," he seems to say). But in the flying lifts, flips, collapses, plus Dorfman's occasional bursts into folky prancing, the two exude tenderness, understanding, and pure delight in each other's company and in the fullness of their dancing.

 
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