Darkness is the new light? That’s one speculation induced by the overture to Conjunto di NERO by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten. Bright lights beam onto the assembling audience, while onstage, in almost total darkness, a figure in black clothing repeats a minimal sequence of semaphoring gestures. Down-pointing spotlights at the back, a band of light stretching across the floor behind the dancer, and increasing smoke further embed in darkness what we gradually discern to be a very tall woman (Suzan Tunca). As the ticking rhythms in the taped score acquire louder layers, we dimly see her bourréeing and undulating her arms in what might be a reference to Swan Lake.
When the sound collage (conceived by the choreographer-directors and realized by Wim Selles) emits a crash and a roar and drops into a well of silence, the stage brightens and the lights trained on us fade. Even now, Tunca isn’t fully revealed. Wearing a shaggy, black knit dress and pointe shoes, she dances with her back to us. Stretching into lunges, writhing her spine, slashing the air with her arms, crashing clumsily into a fall, she’s almost as unknowable as the person in the blackness at the rear of the stage who mirrors her movements.
Throughout Conjunto di NERO (2001), Henk Danner’s stunning lighting seems to trigger changes in the music—as quiet as crickets, as loud as the clatter of a train. Together they conspire to trap or goad the six dancers: Ty Boomershine, Sawami Fukuoka, Barbara Meneses Gutiérrez, Nicola Monaco, Tunca, and Greco. They travel along crossing diagonal paths of light, almost disappearing offstage and often skittering backward, feet kicking forward, as if leashed to those trails. (It can take a few seconds to realize that some vanish and others replace them during these forays.) Sometimes, part of the black stage floor becomes a reflective band, or an imprisoning rectangle of white light appears. At a turning point in a powerful trio for Gutiérrez, Monaco, and Greco, their huge shadows appear on the side walls of the theater. Much later, triggered by what sounds like a cannon going off, all three “walls” are revealed; they’re made of the same shaggy black fabric, now silvered by the light, as Clifford Portier’s costumes (plain, long-sleeved dresses for all).
Greco has characterized his choreographic style as “extremalism.” Pretentious, maybe. Accurate for sure. The movement palette is strictly limited; powerful canted moves and gestures are repeated and varied over about 70 minutes. The performers attack the choreography with maximum clarity and intensity, often at high speeds, intermittently collapsing to lie resting or jerking on the floor. Pounding along in tight phalanxes, lunging and twisting, they whip their arms around with such precise violence that you worry they’ll fall off. Sometimes a more delicate gesture emerges, like a straight arm held high, the hand twisting like a bird’s head. Occasionally they seem to shrink inwardly.
Gradually you realize that the denizens of this shadowed, driven world almost never touch. It’s a shock when, during the above-mentioned trio, a dancer reaches out to stroke the head of another (who doesn’t respond). Fukuoka and Monaco grasp both of each other’s hands, but pull against that grip until she breaks away from him and he falls. Toward the end, Greco reappears wearing only white briefs (watching his lean, pale, muscled back shine in the black, light-shot landscape, you wonder if he’s referencing another Greco, the great 16th-century painter) and falls across Gutiérrez. While the music makes its closest approach to melody, he strokes her.
The dance is pregnant with a significance as veiled as the ghostly figures barely discernible from time to time in the background. What does it mean that Greco ends the dance with a long solo, slapping his own flesh in a square of vivid blue light, backed by tiny red floor lamps, one of which emits puffs of smoke? What has prompted this new beginning, if that’s what it is?
Most clearly we see bravery and skill and occasional hints of vulnerability revealed through cyclical ordeals in a shifting landscape—a world ruled by propositions about light and dark, silence and sound, that’s as threatening as it is seductive.