The man and woman demonstrating the steps are stiff and proper, even when cutting loose somewhat in the scampery kicks and hip wiggles of the “Tiger Rag.” May plays his role charmingly, and Kilfoil displays a droll hauteur, although I don’t recall earlier performers making quite so much of a little flirtation as he and Bunker do. I’d give a lot to know what was going through Sokolow’s mind when she made this piece for the tap dancer Danny Daniels and Carmen Gutiérrez from Mexico.

I admire May’s commitment to keeping Sokolow’s austere, heartfelt work alive, but wish that the costumes for this relatively light program were better; only those by Bunker and Ivana Drazic for Frida were passable. And, although the members of the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble perform with conviction, few of them are proficient enough to make the choreography flame through them from the soles of their feet to their fingertips.

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Jim May, Eleanor Bunker, and Richard Kilfoil in Anna Sokolow's "A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of
Ragtime."
Robin Meems
Jim May, Eleanor Bunker, and Richard Kilfoil in Anna Sokolow's "A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime."
Luciana Achugar and Michael Mahalchick in Achugar's "Puro Deseo."
Julieta Cervantes
Luciana Achugar and Michael Mahalchick in Achugar's "Puro Deseo."

Details

Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble
Joyce Soho
April 22 through 25

Luciana Achugar
The Kitchen
April 29 through May

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How often do you go to a dance performance hoping to be spellbound? No, I mean really

spellbound, wondering what spectral presence may be conjured up or whether the crawling, growling, snuffling creature starting up the aisle of the Kitchen’s black-box theater will lick your feet (not a usual aisle seat hazard). The Uruguay-born choreographer Luciana Achugar has always investigated—celebrated—the primal in her compelling pieces. She makes you intensely aware, sometimes at very close range, of the performers’ breathing, their body heat, their sweat. In her new Puro Deseo, she adds another layer, invoking paranormal phenomena and the occult. She wants, I think, to mesmerize us, which she does, and I don’t think she’d mind scaring the hell out of us. If I were to cede my ability to construct a sentence and moan my way down the page in syllables, I might better convey the visceral response this work induces.

Puro Deseo isn’t what people usually mean when they call something a dance. All the movement is guttural; gestures spew up from some dark, inner place. Only once, when Achugar stands with her feet apart and springs up repeatedly onto the balls of her feet, do you realize that she could hack it in ballet class. Nor can you think of the mysterious transactions between her and composer-performer Michael Mahalchick as anything resembling a conventional duet.

You’re constantly aware that you’re not seeing everything. Lighting designer Madeline Best creates a black cavern, within which paths appear and disappear on the floor, and dim patches of light reveal Achugar or Mahalchick, then vanish. If you blink, you may miss something. Sometime their giant shadows loom on the back wall. In this context, a sudden glare of white light is shocking, as is the low lamp at the rear that’s aimed right at us.

From the beginning, we’re taught to accept the dark. We sit in blackness, listening to Achugar’s barely audible voice coming from behind us. She’s singing in Spanish what sounds almost like a lullaby at first. I can just make out a few words: “sana,” and “mañana. . .” She repeats the short song many, many times, gradually getting louder and harsher as she nears the performing area. When we do see her, she’s gliding back and forth along a diagonal, turning her head to stare at us as she passes, her long, stiff, black silk coat rustling, black gloves covering her hands. She’s a solidly built woman, but she seems almost weightless on this smooth journey—like the ghosts that float through Gothic novels.

Now we see her, now we don’t. Suddenly Mahalchick’s supine form is revealed for a few seconds. When the lights come up again on Achugar, she’s tracing a new path. Sometimes in the dark, we hear sounds—metallic things clashing together, a ringing sound, crackling paper. Time begins to seem altered. Having glimpsed Mahalchick only in flashes, we watch him sit for a long time in a circle of light, moving his arms with a soft, incantatory grace that’s surprising, considering his appearance. His long red hair tangles with his beard, and Walter Dundervill has costumed him in a loose, curiously draped black silk shirt that sparkles subtly, and what look like shortish baggy overalls of similar material. When he stands, he intones Achugar’s song in a resonant monotone and at a pace so slow that his breath control seems close to inhuman.

The fact that the 55-minute Puro Deseo is so compressed and so elegantly constructed renders the allusions to witchcraft and possession all the more unnerving. Something very frightening is being hinted at, and we’re never sure which of the two characters is in control, or which is being conjured up by the other. Mahalchick stands at the back, raising his arms as if summoning up forces and chanting “sa-na, sa-na,” while Achugar lies supine on the floor, rhythmically spreading her legs, raising them bent, and lowering them pressed together; she moves her arms in a related pattern. At this point, she has shed her coat and is wearing a very short, artfully slashed tunic over lacework tights, under which she appears to be naked. She repeats this sequence of movements over and over (I counted about 84 times) quite calmly, without acting out sensual experience, but as time passes, you feel the action in your gut and can imagine that she’s giving birth to an infant fantasy or screwing a succubus.

In the end, the two merge—first standing one behind the other; then facing, foreheads pressed together; then separating and walking away from us, curved arms lifted, toward that one blinding light and on into darkness. The night air outside the theater has never seemed so fresh and bright.

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