Theater archives

The Imaginative East


It’s fitting that Estonia’s Van Krahl Theatre’s rampaging deconstruction of Swan Lake takes place in black-box theaters rather than on velvet-curtained stages. I saw it in the Hague this fall as part of the adventurous three-week Holland Dance Festival; here it plays DTW’s Bessie Schönberg as part of “Central Station,” a multi-venue series of works from Eastern Europe, ending December 20.

This mordantly witty Swan Lake is socially and politically aware. Three actors, at first variously mustachioed, bearded, and bespectacled, call to mind an irreverent mélange of Soviet leaders. They pace, as if cogitating on serious business, but carry on like buffoons and strip to flex their muscles. There’s a lot of yelling and grunting. The six dancers are artificially red-cheeked women—small, strong, wearing drab gray dresses—who display both the docility of a 19th-century ballet ensemble and the feistiness of a disenchanted proletariat. At first, they cower when touched and use the hems of their dresses to scrub furiously at their knees. Later, one busts a guy in the balls. An actress in white and one in black hardly represent Odette and Odile. The one in white prays and sings, among other things. The one in black cries often, squeezing a sponge full of “tears” into a bucket. Tchaikovsky’s music, often tweaked stylistically, belches up out of Sergei Zagny’s score in company with crashes and the roar of engines. Old film footage of the Petipa classic is projected intermittently, sometimes on bedsheets hung up to dry.

The terrifically engrossing rumpus conceived by Peeter Jalakas (direction and video) and Sasha Pepelyaev (choreography) juxtaposes chaos to nonsensical order. The men, and later the women, sit with their legs stuck out in front of them like dolls and wigwag their hands and feet in a meticulously dopey pattern. The women begin sitting on chairs atop high catwalks on either side of the stage. A huge boom is lowered; the men, hanging onto one end, lever the other end up, and bring it down with one woman at a time clinging to it.

There’s a lot of “stuff”: pails; sheets; pillows to walk on or lie on in orderly rows; big metal barrels to beat on, disappear into, and roll around in. Everything has a use, however nutty, and these people are very resourceful. In out-of-whack allusions to ballet, women are “promenaded” lying on pillows, men manipulate women into a group pose, women dance fiercely for gazing men, a quilt becomes wings, and a tutu appears on one dancer (each gets a chance to shine) amid crazed falls and unruly cavorting.

Van Krahl offers a fragmented vision of a beloved classic as an analogy for social order breaking down; yet its fleeting images also offer curious reassurance. Every day, somewhere in the world, there’s a swan in a tutu.

No such scenarios for BADco from Croatia. Instead, in Solo Me, Pravdan Devlahovic and Nikolina Bujas-Pristas present a humanistic vision of two colleagues investigating space and embroidering on each other’s dances. At P.S.122, we sit in a tight square around taped white lines that cross the floor space; we’re close to them and complicit. At one point Bujas-Pristas slips into a seat beside my friend, wraps an arm around her, and, giggling occasionally, whispers a translation of words Devlahovic has been scribbling in a notebook while she danced. Another time she grasps a spectator’s hands and holds them while she twists and swings her legs around.

Devlahovic begins his Solo in A Major, op. 69 to the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, played quietly at first. He’s a big man, strong but soft. After tracing the air in front of him, he walks from spot to spot; even as he arrives, his head is turning to find his next destination. Bujas-Pristas watches as he expands his dancing—carefully spinning stretched arms, cartwheeling, springing up; whatever he does looks deliberate, resilient, chosen. She is small and lean; angles become her. Her solo, And this is no longer a beginning, traverses each white line, gradually moving her eastward. Her music, Ivan Marusic’s Kliff, is up-to-date and abrasive; her limbs pull her precise, yet impulsive dancing off center and in momentarily contrary directions as she varies her theme. “Writing one choreographic sentence in different (choreographic) fonts,” she calls it.

When the two move simultaneously—sometimes in silence, sometimes switching or mingling their musics—their separate solos intersect beguilingly. Occasionally they fall into unison. She sends his opening gestures out in silky disarray, as she navigates the single blue line crossing the white ones. He reduces his available space to what he can touch and all but trips over his own feet seeking out new directions. In the choreographically astute reiterations and restatements, the dance heats up (by the end Devlahovic has sweated his way through three successive blue shirts).

There’s nothing grim about this fastidious attention to form. Devlahovic and Bujas-Pristas are two comradely explorers, as diligent, resourceful, and fulfilled in their limited space as if it were a large world of invigorating surprises and challenges.