What brought BAM audience members to their feet and made them yell and scream? Was it Nacho Duato’s choreography, or the Compañia Nacional de Danza’s magnificent performers? A bit of both, of course. Duato’s work requires a fervor that goes beyond virtuosity and commitment into the realm of heroism, yet, oddly, he makes it difficult for us to identify the dancers as individuals. No program bios, no photos on the company website. In the three pieces on the recent BAM program, they’re costumed identically for the most part; they often move in unison, evenly spaced out on the stage. Individuals break out here and there, merge in duets, or join in comradely trios, yet we know them only as tall-man-with curly-hair or medium-sized-blondish-man (I think this is Amaury Lebrun).
I find Duato’s choreography most alluring when his steps have the earthy vigor of folk dancing (this is also to some degree how I feel about Jirí Kylián, a major influence on Duato, who performed with Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater before striking out on his own). So I was delighted by Por Vos Muero. Although the dancers (six men and six women) begin walking upstage in slow motion, garbed in neutral outfits resembling underclothes, things perk up when the woman reappear in long silk skirts that swirl around them when they break into frisky steps or billow when they sink down to mourn the passing of love or a lover. The piece’s charm was undermined on opening night by punitively loud amplification inappropriate to the style of the wonderful Renaissance music (romances, villancicos, a pasamezzo, a requiem, and more). The sound level also made the unseen voice speaking poetry by Garcilaso de la Vega sound like God about to lay it on Moses (another quibble: the disastrously bad translation of the poems in the program).
There’s a satisfying interplay of moods and devices and imaginative steps in Por Vos Muero. It’s odd, though, how Duato stops just short of creating a strong image of community. Here’s a typical enigma. In one sequence, while the women dance, the men stand behind them, facing the back of the stage, like a widely separated beads on a string. When the men take a turn dancing, the women come to the front and sit with their backs to us. A design principal rules: those not dancing line up and face away from the audience. But when you look at the design in human terms, you see it as the men turning their backs on the women, while the women watch the men.
In Castrati, Duato tackles a lurid theme: the centuries-past emasculation of boy singers to create male sopranos. In this dark little world, eight men function as a unit, bent on doing as they have been done to. To some of Vivaldi’s gorgeous church music (also savagely loud), they race about and assemble devoutly. In their long black dresses, open in front (costumes by Francis Montesinos), they resemble flocking crows. Duato creates some striking images of torment and devoutness within this involuntary priesthood: men taking off their garments and lashing them around; Clyde Archer demonstrating his remarkable muscular lyricism in a solo; several men kneeling to form an altar for initiate José Carlos Blanco to lie upon; and other tableaux that prefigure what’s to come.
Naturally, there’s a fair amount of crotch-clutching and not only by Blanco (who performs vulnerability excellently). The linking of these males—most of whom flourished as opera singers—with the image of a religion-driven community was perhaps inspired in part by the music. It’s a provocative and theatrically compelling idea. But Duato takes it a bit far. At the end, when the “operation” has taken place, the men lift Blanco. He reaches out his hands; each palm bears a bloody spot.
Both Duato’s predilection and his gift are for passionate abstraction. The strict forms bristle with luscious movement that beautiful even when it’s expressing dark subjects. White Darkness deals with drug addiction, but there’s so little sordidness that, unless you read the program before seeing the piece, you mightn’t know that the white powder that, spotlit, pours down from above at various times and in various places onstage is meant to be heroin (or cocaine). It could be a miraculous blessing from heaven. People lie neatly down around a pool’s circumference to sleep, or kneel devoutly by another supply. A woman (Yolanda Martín), guided or guarded by a man (Dimo Kirilov) is fatally attracted to the substance; others hang her out over “their” pool; Martín and Kirilov pour small quantities of it between each other’s hands. In the end, several individuals are isolated by their craving in squares of light, and the white stuff rains down on Martín until she’s turned th color of ash. Kirilov walks out of her life.
It’s all very beautiful and very sad, with a draped gray backdrop that falls into cloudy peaks and valleys, fine lighting by Joop Caboort, and uniform dark outfits (short pants and tops) for all but Martín and Kirilov. Duato, who originally dedicated this dance to his sister, makes White Darkness into an elegy for a lost life.