For centuries, dancers have defined in movement their culture’s idea of beauty—either in terms of physical perfection or spiritual transcendence. Only in the last century did choreographers think of tackling the everyday (Judson Dance Theater), the imperfect or deformed (butoh), and states that deconstructed the body or interrupted its “normal” flow patterns. An addled mind-body relationship can stand for a complicated world or a deranged one.
In preparing his AtaXia, British choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose own style is often feverishly disjunct, studied the eponymous muscular disease, capitalizing the “x” to stress that onsets of ataxia make take the form of sudden attacks that subside and leave the affected person functioning normally. He worked with his dancers to achieve the attendant confusion, disintegrating coordination, and failed muscle power. The result, shown at the Lincoln Center Festival, is a fascinating, disturbing dance, but in some curious way a hopeful one.
The environment itself shatters continuity and comprehension. Designer Lucy Carter and McGregor have backed the dance with a very dark, semi-reflective substance; dim reflections of the onstage activity flash intermittently within its depths, depending on Carter’s lighting. Small translucent screens descend almost invisibly from time to time—not only to receive mysterious film images (by John Warwicker @ tomato) but to alter our perception. Suddenly (am I losing my vision?) two dancers seem out of focus, as if seen through a shower door. I understand what’s happened only when they move out from behind a panel into centerstage clarity. Overhead neon lights flash. Individual rectangles of blue light jail the dancers, and, at one point, on a nearly black stage, the hems of their costumes glow blue.
Michael Gordon’s Trance, played by Icebreaker, is loud and abrasive; this powerful, disconcerting score switches course as unexpectedly as the dancers’ faltering synapses, sometimes sounding like rock, sometimes like jangled 20th-century dissonance. Crashes may be interrupted by a flute or a sax; electrified strings wail; bass and guitar twang and thump; voices surface and drown; short, plucked notes build a repeating pattern; chaos erupts. Did I hear a waltz?
The tone is set at the beginning. One woman (Laila Diallo) is dancing; another is having trouble with her legs—they wobble, they toe in. Diallo helps her up and they dance, gradually sliding into unison. Then Diallo’s legs crumple. It becomes clear that these 10 people are a tribe, bound together by disease. Often they haul one another up off the floor. At one point, some stand and hoist a partner’s leg. A couple sits; the woman leans back against the man, and he rubs her belly.
In contrast to the curiously virtuosic moves denoting injury, the passages of powerful, skewed dancing—the leaps, the spins, the forceful unison—seem to represent control. The dancers often act as if they have a lot of “work” to cram in before their bodies fail them, sometimes wrenching themselves around as if to fight the onset of ataxia even as it’s undermining their motor skills. Patterns also disintegrate; as performers follow one another in threading through a horizontal line, they cause the line to vanish.
For all the frequent isolation of individuals coping with their own debility, and for all the speed and violence of the hour-long piece, the dancers emerge as individuals: Claire Cunningham, Diallo, Antonia Grove, Khmalane Halsackda, Odette Hughes, Léo Lérus, Ngoc Anh Nguyen, Matthias Sperling, Hilary Stainsby, and Antoine Vereecken. Although, despite research, I can’t accurately pin a name to each performer, I felt by the end of AtaXia as if I knew them all. That is as much a tribute to McGregor’s gifts as is the brilliant disruptive choreography.