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April 2014

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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 10, 2014
Category: review

The Martha Graham Company Gets an Update

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK-It’s a safe assumption that Nacho Duato’s Depak lne, which premiered March 20 with the Martha Graham Dance Company, takes its title from Depakine, a drug used to treat bipolar disorder and seizures. In the ballet’s second act, Graham dancer PeiJu Chien-Pott shuddered on the New York City Center stage with a physically brilliant mania that was  nothing short of terrifying. Duato’s focus, however, isn’t on patients with mental issues, but rather on an apocalyptic society in which mania and violence are a response to a harsh world.

Photo by COSTAS

Depak lne is a stark departure. Unlike Duato’s internationally lauded, folk inflected, community-oriented works, which feature mellifluous partnering borrowed from ballet and modern traditions, Depak lne draws from early 20th century German expressionist dance, which investigated the grotesque–particularly through hallucinatory visions of madness and violence. In turn, Duato has chosen an overblown (recorded) soundtrack: Serbian composer Arsenije Jovanovic’s moody Athos-Montana Sacra and a section from D. J. John Talabot’s pounding techno album Fin–selections more characteristic of an underground dance club than the concert hall.

Depak lne begins with a vision of a dancer (Chien-Pott), lying face down on her stomach, as though left for dead. Three female dancers circle, but don’t revive her. Things get decidedly less civilized when the men arrive. After gagging one of the women, one of the men (Abdiel Jacobsen) brings to mind a modern Marquis de Sade: he dramatically sweeps a black cape (costumes by Angelina Atlagic) across his body. His only other accoutrement is a pair of black hot pants. Like the rest of the cast, he emerges from and disappears into dark velvety drapes (designed by Bradley Fields) like a phantom.

The most gripping moments occur with Duato’s group tableaux: Three to five dancers cling, cantilever, and climb atop each other like moths drawn to a flame for just enough time for the eye to register a strange conglomeration of limbs. A blink later, the image disappears, as if a figment of the imagination. At other times, the women resemble grotesque appendages. They grip the men’s legs and curl up in balls like bats hanging in a cave.

Duato’s signature lyrical style, in which women are lifted aloft in waves of energy that resemble gentle surf, is nowhere in evidence. Instead, they are propelled by the men like rockets and then dropped like bombs. Their treatment could be construed as misogynistic, but the six men in the cast aren’t exactly gentle to each other. It’s a world ruled by the survival of the fittest.

In the last 10 minutes of piece, Duato hints at a rebirth. Bird sounds emerge from the score and a strong downward light (designed by Bradley Fields), shines on the prone Chien-Pott. She finally awakens, slowly dragging herself along the darkly lit upstage diagonal, bringing to mind evolutionary slime (which scientists say lasted for a billion years). When she circles back to the front of the stage in a crouching, bug-like walk, she evolves a bit. When she climbs an imaginary tree, she reaches vertebrae status. With the fluttering and stretching of her marvelously elastic limbs, she continues to shape shift. Will she fly next? Three men appear out of the darkness and thrust her skyward. Balanced on the back of one man’s calf, looped through the arms of another, she is foisted above their shoulders from her ankles. It is visually fantastic–a demonstration of Duato’s genius for partnering.

But Chien-Pott’s evolution doesn’t end there. She opens her mouth and arches her back as a silent howl emerges. Then she begins to short circuit. She is turning into a machine–one that is breaking down. As she makes her way back to her original position, every one of her muscles seizes. Then she collapses.

The program also featured Graham’s Appalachian Spring (1944) and The Rite of Spring (1984). Both works look old fashioned, perhaps because the grounded whirl of Graham’s dance movement from the 1940s, and even 1980s, doesn’t ignite 21st century eyes. Today’s  dancers move with a warp-like speed. In Duato’s hands they are convincing inchworms, praying mantises, or machines. In Depak lne, they articulate human evolution and the potential horror of its de-evolution.

 Copyright © 2014, Musical America



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