In 2002, the Argentinian choreographer Diana Szeinblum brought her Secreto y Malibu to DTW. Almost six years later, she returns with Alaska. The earlier work, for two women, was set in the courtyard of a house in a hot, arid landscape. Alaska is set in a featureless arena, on whose white-floored center four people dredge up memories reduced by the passage of time to their fierce, debilitating essences. When not digging through their inner trash heaps, the performers sit on the sidelines or drink water at a table near the wings. Fascinating though the piece is, this last cold frontier of selfhood is not a place you’d want to visit.
Szeinblum once worked at the Folkwang Tanz Schule with Pina Bausch and other exponents of German Tanztheater. That experience shows in her use of grueling repetition. To begin, Alejandra Ferreyra Ortíz goes up to Pablo Lugones, who’s wearing a placard that announces “Estoy desesperado.” Numbed by desperation, he pays no attention to her, as—over and over—she swings her arms violently back and her torso forward, occasionally glancing hopefully at him. When Lucas Condro sits on the floor and swipes one leg sideways, or when Noelia Leonzio takes off her blouse and pumps her ribcage fiercely in and out for a long time, you wonder if their bodies will fall apart before they’re able to vomit out their demons.
Their ordeals are accompanied by composer Ulises Conti on piano, Mariano Malamud on viola, and electronic maelstroms. The score speeds up when they do, turns sweet, falls silent, engulfs them. Although people occasionally embrace or kiss, they are mostly cruel in unusual ways. When Condro tries to take his trousers down, Leonzio—having jumped on him from behind and slung herself over his shoulder—pulls them up again. After several fruitless repeats of this, he flips her over, removing her pants in the process. Lugones and Ferreyra Ortíz join him in struggling to mold her into a bundle and prop her up with her butt in the air.
Szeinblum, wisely, varies the intensity of relentless explorations by inserting inscrutable events: A wooden table crashes down from above, cracked in two; Condro creates tricky rhythms on his bare chest with spoons and invites the audience to ask him personal questions. Knife-edges of wit slice at the spiritual darkness. Szeinblum also has the performers watch their colleagues—as if they’re not actually punishing one another but are standing in, like nurse-therapists, to help recreate what happened long ago. Only Condro, moving with soft sensuousness as the lights dim, seems to achieve catharsis. Awaken slumbering beasts in their dark cave at your peril.