I remember the early choreographer of Montreal-based Édouard Lock with some fondness. Basically his dancers threw one another in the air, and sometimes you wondered if they’d be caught. I still remember the daredevil Louise Lecavalier, spinning as she hurtled, her blonde hair flying. At some point, Lock became drawn to ballet and to a more austere and complicated take on postmodernism, including, in his latest work, Amjad, the deconstruction of classic works.
Lock’s company, La La La Human Steps, began the BAM run of Amjad at a gala for the organization’s enterprising 26-year-old Next Wave Festival. This choreographer’s kind of wave is more like a riptide. The 2007 piece is shallowly rooted in two 19th-century ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and the score for two violas, cello, and piano (plus electronic assistance) by Gavin Bryars, David Lang, and Blake Hargreaves skillfully distorts, submerges, and otherwise disguises Tchaikovsky’s melodies in a dangerous universe of sound. Three disk-shaped screens that periodically descend hold moving images of branches, red canyons of what might be bloody flesh, white beads that grow, shrink, and assemble themselves into necklaces (or crowns?), and, late in the game, sleeping women enmeshed in tangled branches or lake weeds (set design by Armand Vaillancourt).
But the action and look of the stage belie these romantic images. The nine dancers wear black: corseted, bare-armed leotards for the women; pants and jackets, or just pants, for the men. John Munro’s mostly icy lighting is brilliantly timed with the dance. Three women enter the stage in darkness; immediately, they’re in individual gleaming squares, arranged on a diagonal. In one gender-querying duet, the formidably tall Zofia Tujaka is in a blue light, while her suitor, Dominique Santia (now also on pointe), is rosier.
The vocabulary Lock uses in Amjad is almost identical to that in his Amelia, which BAM presented in 2005. Women lounge like odalisques when suggesting, intermittently, a corps de ballet. The men sometimes act doggy beside the women—on all fours, as if sniffing for action. Partnering is Lock’s major interest. Pairs, glued to one spot on the floor, indulge in ultra-rapid, violent manipulations. The man grabs the woman by the waist and twists her hard from side to side (aborting pirouettes before they start), while she flicks and jabs her feet at the air and floor, her knees working like pistons gone awry. He pushes her away and reels her without apparent intention or malevolence. All the pas de deux look alike, whether performed by Andrea Boardman and Bernard Martin, Jason Shipley-Holmes and Xuan Cheng, or other couples. The rapid tempo never varies; the pace and harshness never lets up. In one abrasive encounter between two men, one lifts the other (apparently by the neck) and slams him down like a log. Take that, Siegfried! The music from Sleeping Beauty’s “Rose Adagio” does not engender slow balances. It’s just another jab-and-slash affair.
Some images relate specifically, if crookedly to Amjad’s sources (the Arabic name, by the way, means glory or honor). Partners waltz together. Princesses get kissed. Women hustle in and gaze, frightened or affronted, at a couple-in-action. Most of all, people flap their arms. And flap them. And flap them. And flap them. Not to get off the ground; that doesn’t interest them. Flight isn’t a possibility in this grim and ferocious kingdom.
I was tremendously impressed by the skill and endurance of the performers (Andrea Boardman, Talia Evtushenko, Mistaya Hemingway, and Keir Knight, in addition to those mentioned). They may love what they’re doing, but in 2005, I referred to Amelia as ballet dancers’ hell, where they’re doomed for eternity to repeat the same eight or 10 steps at nearly impossible speeds, and I feel that way about Amjad. At first, I relished the daring, rapidity, and abrasiveness of Lock’s vision. But about halfway through the 100-minute piece, I became restless and cranky, as if the choreography were scratching at me like nails scratching on blackboards.
The pieces that Kimberly Bartosik has made during her relatively short career as a choreographer are grounded in her interest in the architecture of space and the bodies in it, as well in a desire to query the boundaries between performers and spectators. The mission may sound doctrinaire, but her haunting new Ecsteriority 1 & 2 bristles with implications of tumult and desolation.
The set that Bartosik and Roderick Murray have designed for the piece seats the spectators for the first part in three single lines of chairs that form an open-topped triangle; at its apex, its two slanting slides frame a black wood panel that looks to be about nine feet wide. The fluorescent tubes that are part of Murray’s lighting plan lie along the floor behind the seats. Long before the piece begins, Elke Rindfleisch and Marc Mann prowl intermittently behind the audience. Paying no attention to us, they peruse the space of St. Mark’s Church as if looking for the source or presence of something potentially dangerous.
Then they enter our zone and lie supine, her legs thrown across his body. A spotlight from the balcony hits them, and a crackling, shaking sound erupts in Luke C. Fasano’s score. Mann and Rindfleisch begin to tangle and thrash and smack their limbs against the floor, as if they’ve stuck together in some infuriating, unfathomable way. Blackout. When they appear again, he’s flattened in profile against the black wall, pinned in another light—a two-dimensional figure on a Greek vase. She, sitting in front of him, worms one of her feet up the wall between his body and curved arm. While they adjust further, the music morphs into high sounds and electronic tweets. The lights go out again.
Throughout their remarkable, heart-stopping duet, Mann and Rindfleisch never abandon their watchfulness. Mann’s powerful physique, his alertness, and his curious blinking stare are unnerving, especially when he stands close to audience members and gazes at them, almost without comprehension. There are gentle moments. He listens to her heart. She nuzzles awkwardly against him. She removes her outer, sweat-soaked shirt and gives it to a spectator; later she returns, strips off her undershirt, gives him that, and puts the other back on.
But most of what the two do is violent, askew. Even the odd way Mann cranes his neck seems not entirely of his own volition. Invisible storms—whether from without or within—torque their bodies unimaginably, hurl their limbs about, slam themselves against the wall. Once, Mann charges at a bank of spectators, then stops, staring. In the end, Rindfleisch leaves the arena. Mann collects her undershirt and follows.
Now we onlookers are moved to the carpeted platforms at either side of the church. While our chairs are collected and taken away, we can survey another aspect of the landscape that has only begun to be fully visible. At our feet and scattered upon the altar platform and the steps leading to it are the fallen bodies of white plastic canines—eyeless, earless, whole, dismembered. A pile of little bones sits in one corner. Each carcass has a tiny, individual spotlight trained on it. (I later learned that these were molded from taxidermists’ coyotes that had been skinned, but they look like greyhounds). Into this landscape of devastation, Derry Swan and Wally Cardono gradually move. High, rhythmic owlish sounds follow them as they divest themselves of hoodies, gloves. They see each other but don’t touch, rarely even come close (at one point, she seems to smell him). They too stare at something we don’t see, but they’re calmer than the first pair, except for an amazingly wild solo burst of dancing from Cardono and a later one by Swan, and by the force with which they kick their legs out or pull themselves off balance.
These two make us think about the animals. Many times, they fall into cramped, hobbled poses that resemble those of the bleached creatures. I remember Pompeii’s victims, immobilized by lava in the last movements they made while alive. At one point, Swan walks among the bodies on the altar platform, cradles one, carries it to a piece of fabric, and sits beside it. Cardono pushes the whole thing across the floor. Just as the chill lights go off, the two are on the platform, quietly trying out the struck-by-death positions.
The tricky title, conflating ecstasy and exteriority, in no way unlocks—or prepares you for—the beautiful and wrenching enigma of Bartosik’s and Murray’s creation.