Critics writing about modern dance in the middle of the last century were at pains to understand what the choreographer meant. Audiences fretted over not “getting it.” It was important to know that the rope that tangled Jocasta and Oedipus in Martha Graham’s Night Journey represented the umbilical cord, as well as whatever snarls a previously spicy relationship. Merce Cunningham, George Balanchine, and the ’60s radicals freed us from this quest to interpret. A dance was ours to make up stories about, should we need to peer beyond the complications of movement and form and, maybe, music and objects.
When narrative returned to contemporary dance, it was subject to postmodern strategies of layering, collaging, and juxtaposing often blazingly diverse texts. Follow a trail? Are you kidding? In Maria Hassabi’s Dead Is Dead, the first full-length work by this Cyprus-born downtown choreographer to be shown in New York, meaning resides in impact. She subjects us to a bombardment of violent, gaudy, hypercharged images drawn from popular culture and fashion, carrying them to drastic extremes. It is greatly to her credit that she can present the urban fast life as a train wreck yet remain in control of her material.
Actually, searching for meaning in activities that rank low in profundity seems to be the predicament of the society Hassabi shows us. The score by Spencer Sweeney with Ben Brunnemer—also a collage—skillfully captures the capriciousness of a “scene,” now stroking everything with sweetness, now howling it down. The six performers begin as glittering shapes in darkness when Jonathan Belcher’s fittingly dramatic lighting gradually reveals them. They’re posing at microphone stands, dressed to kill in offbeat chic by the upcoming fashion team As Four. The mics figure big time. As Dead Is Dead unrolls, Caitlin Cook, Jessie Gold, Hristoula Harakas, Michael Portnoy, Jeremy Wade, and Hassabi pose with and beside them. Hassabi moans into one, Portnoy sings a sardonic song he wrote. The stands are spun and laid down, and when hot gets hotter, Wade uses one like an automatic rifle. In perhaps the most terrifying episode, Cook, lying on her back, inches up the aisle headfirst, almost swallowing the mic she’s squalling and gasping into (she lies there inert while, on the deserted stage, Harakas performs a berserk solo lying down, in which she wheels her legs rapidly around like calipers seeking a point to fix on).
The performers are hemmed in. The backdrop by Dash Snow and Nico Dios bears a dense black-and-silver pattern of odd crosses and other shapes, touched with red. There are partial walls on either side (one a collage by Marcos Rosales). People bang into them; Hassabi has a laughing fit against one. Trying to maintain equilibrium while constantly seeking to please, to keep up, is a fruitless task for these people. “Absolutely gorgeous! Amazing!” turns into a numbing mantra. A couple of times Cook, sitting on Wade’s back as he crawls along, hauls up her skimpy shirt to show her breasts and pulls it down again with a mechanical smirk. In the midst of overkill, moments of stillness and silence feel as depleted as an empty nightclub at 5 a.m.
The ending is an impressive shock. The performers start carrying in bushes and small trees. Eventually the stage is a mass of foliage. The people leave, and the lights begin a dance of their own. What is Hassabi telling us now? That nature too is compromised? That no forest is exempt from light shows and the semi-apocalyptic rock that blasts out as the house lights come on to signal the end? That our craving for stimulation is our undoing and we should head for the woods? Suddenly “What does it all mean?” becomes a trick question, and I stagger out into the compromised night.