Postmodernism could be seen as trafficking in antiquities, and the kind of meddling archaeologists would frown on (fragments of a vase from Nineveh find their way into a mirror framed in seashells; the partially erased text of a Dead Sea scroll is set to an Irving Berlin tune). To create The Life and Morals of a Night Comedian, Swiss choreographer Philippe Saire scrutinized Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, specifically the cross-purposed desires of the play’s four lovers, and transmuted them into contemporary wrangles that could teach Pina Bausch lessons in repetitiveness.
The repetitions impart an ambience of dream to the characters’ encounters; yet the violence with which they perform jolts the audience into a visceral engagement. Over and over, Nabih Amaraoui and Corinne Rochet embrace; over and over, Manuel Chabanis yanks them apart. Later, the two men vie furiously for the attentions of Karine Grasset, and when Rochet tries to kiss Amaraoui, he rebuffs her. Again. Again. Again.
If you know Saire’s source (it’s mentioned in the program), the references are canny. Nicholas Pettit is a nimble but businesslike Puck in trousers and a tight-fitting military jacket. He frisks his feet about and occasionally lounges in the background, but he also starts with a precise finger the tape recorder that calls the tune, wheels a spotlight to where it’s needed, blows on the wayfarers to guide their wanderings, and sets off little squibs that pop and flare.
But there’s no misguided magic at work here. The Puck figure’s control is itself an illusion. These distracted people roam through a landscape of uncertain desires—now imitating one another, now turning on what they once craved, and vice versa. The scheme is ingenious, the performers eloquent. Watching, I begin to feel my arms straining in their sockets, my body bruised from being slammed to the floor so many times. At first engrossing, the unremitting ferocity eventually numbs me and erodes my sympathy for the contenders in this long battle between “I want” and “You can’t have.” I don’t remember a happy ending. Pettit dances light as a leaf on a field of tumbled bodies.
Another company from Europe, the Valencia-based Compañia Vicente Sáez, presents a ritual rife with cosmic significance: the death and resurrection of Osiris, the myth of the Phoenix rising from its own ashes, the cycle of life. Sáez has a good reputation in Europe. He’s created pieces for other companies besides his own, been invited to festivals, choreographed Mozart’s Requiem. Perhaps Fénix is an aberration. It begins with a lengthy solo by Sáez; both the choreography and his performance are compelling—stern but fluid, his long, undulating arms hinting at wings, then shooting out in fists. It doesn’t take long to realize that you’ve seen just about every movement that you’re going to see over the dance’s hour-plus duration. At some point, the halting priest-in-a-living-frieze walk with which the eight dancers enter and leave awakens atavistic urges to throw tomatoes.
You can grasp the fleeting allusions to death and reawakening (a woman slips to the floor from Sáez’s grasp, six people revive her, she falls again and wakens on her own), to age (a woman staggers slightly as she walks away), to birth (three women spread their legs and howl). A dancer is lifted so she seems to fly. There are Egyptian allusions: the walk, the squared-off arm gestures, the raising of one hand to encircle an eye.
The dancers knock themselves out, and some deliver impressive performances. Asuncion Noales is particularly striking in a solo. What makes Fénix‘s ritualistic portentousness so deadly, I think, is the rhythmic predictability and heaviness of the choreography, underlined by the music emanating from Amores Grup de Percussió’s three-man battery of drums and rattles. For much of the piece, the basic beat is leaden and the texture bombastic. Every solemn step falls on an accent. Forget any subtle or complex relationship between music and dance; they do each other in.
Chris DC Ramos has had a little company since 1997, but his work doesn’t seem anchored yet. It’s as if he’s groping for something but isn’t sure what. In works for all five dancers, there are interesting passages, but the choreography looks formless, despite Ramos’s occasional use of such devices as canon and thematic repetition. What you see are dancers running around, doing something: three here, two there, rushing elsewhere. Sometimes everyone’s doing different steps. Nothing quite binds the constantly changing ideas together, but neither is Ramos after the open-field effect of Merce Cunningham. It takes longer than it should to realize that Roanne Flores is not just temporarily soloing in the 1999 Do I . . ., but is seriously alone. And the choreography for Silent/Listen (also 1999) often lies uneasily on the eclectic musical extracts (Bizet, Vengaboys, Prokofiev, et al.).
One of the strongest pieces—Incierto Conexion (1998), a tango trio (to Piazzolla, of course)—runs out of steam toward the end, but it begins smartly with clear designs and clever intersections for Flores, Jeff Cox, and Ricky Santiago. Ramos seems to lose his way in dances. Santiago and Omagbitse Omagbemi dance as if on the edges of each other’s consciousness. In the 1997 Nights Passing, are they working their way backward through a relationship? We hear the sound of footsteps. Are they his? He sees her just before she jumps into his arms. Ruefulness reigns: “Woulda been, shoulda been, coulda been,” sighs the vocalist (Abbey Lincoln). Out of nowhere, Santiago dons pajama bottoms, Omagbemi the top; then she takes it off, puts her dress back on, and gives him the pajama top. He sits and runs his hands through his hair. They kiss.
Ramos appears in a brief, wistful little solo with guest vocalist Allison Langerak singing “But Not for Me” and the two of them plucking petals from a flower (he stashes them in his pocket just in case). He also presents an ambitious autobiographical sketch in which he attempts to deal with the issues of being HIV-positive, craving a partner, still cruising, and having to practice safe sex. He strikes an interestingly distanced choreographic stance in the opening, when Langerak lists the medicines he has to take and he catches in midmotion the bottles she tosses him. Thereafter the tone fluctuates between wryness and earnest confession.
Ramos’s dance-crammed evening runs smoothly and is excellently lit by Christopher Brown. Yet the pieces look underrehearsed. Certainly everything is underperformed. The dancers, all technically capable, aren’t fully focused; the fact that they don’t extract the meat from the movement or adventure with dynamics adds to the feeling of scatteredness that colors the concert.