Rows of wooden chairs fill the stage. There must be over a hundred of them. A huge cluster of lightbulbs pretends to be a chandelier. Two soft chords are repeating: low-high, low-high. Patrycja Kujawska, barefoot and wearing a dark dress, makes her way slowly, bent over, between the first two rows of chairs. Eleanor McDonald approaches her, puts a hand under her brow, and gently raises her head. As they move falteringly along, McDonald keeps that solicitous hand ready. She settles Kujawska into a chair and hands her a violin. A melody by Bach drips tenderness into the gloomy silence.
This is the mournfully lovely beginning of Charlotte Vincent’s Broken Chords for her small company, Vincent Dance Theatre, based in Sheffield, England. The choreographer states in a program note that she made it in 2005 as her marriage painfully disintegrated. The eight performers race aimlessly between the chairs, vaulting over them. They fall and are caught. Each one is illuminated in turn, making wan gestures amid the thicket of chairs. Sometimes a blast from Alex Catona’s score coincides with a glare of light by James Harrison. Stefano Fogher stops running and begins sawing on a cello. Kujawska speaks, barely audibly, a litany of regrets (“I’m sorry you lied to me . . . “). Valentina Formenti, staggering herself, drags Janusz Orlik along by his elbow (since his hand seems permanently connected to his brow).
Just as the sadness slips toward the maudlin, astringent wit kicks in. Rachel Krische (representing Vincent) orders the music to stop, the lights to brighten, and everyone to smile. She’s had it with glumness. When an absurd game fails to cheer everyone up, she pulls out a pistol, yelling, “Let’s move the fucking chairs! Stack them up!!” As if these were the accumulated debris of a marriage. She’s not easy to please, although she rather likes the Spanish song Fogher sings at gunpoint and the flamenco heelwork that McDonald stamps out.
From this point on, sardonic comedy and reinvigorating affection play against each other. While Orlik dances with Krische, Formenti morosely opens a suitcase and, with the items inside, tries to kill herself in at least six ridiculous ways (one involves putting a trash bag over her head, taping it to her neck, bending over, and pouring the contents of a large bottle of water into the bag through an opening in the back). The youngest in this multinational group, 23-year-old Darren Anderson, seizes the opportunity to tell us about his talents, before eagerly trying to insert himself into a somber, if bracingly athletic, duet by Orlik and Lee Clayden (flashing an endearing look-at-me grin in our direction); the other men have to keep shoving him away.
The two musicians have a terrible screaming fight. Yet they reconcile in time to join the taped score while Clayden dances with Krische. Dances her, is more like it—as if he were trying to shake a puppet into life. Over and over he lifts her, swings her, sits her on his shoulders, picks her up, puts her down, picks her up again, embraces her. The duet seems to go on forever, but healing takes a long time too. When he finally stands her upright and she starts slowly walking away on careful tiptoe, Fogher begins to intone another quiet list, this time of toasts: “to loneliness,” “to letting things slip,” “to absence,” “to the lights going out,” “to the future I never began . . . ”
Peak Performances @ Montclair, which brought this heart-jolting work to the U.S., deserves to be better known. Anyone taking the 50-minute train ride to Montclair State University this past January could, for example, have seen the premiere of a work by Trisha Brown. The season closer, May 5, teams the Kronos Quartet and composer–sound sculptor Trimpin for some wild digital shenanigans.