"I hated it," said W—. "I loved it," exclaimed P—.
That's the kind of reaction that Stephen Petronio Company's The Architecture of Loss generated Friday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House: love or hate. A number of people took W—'s side, and left after the intermission of the TITAS presented event. They had gotten a big dose of the cerebral, and enough was enough.
Too bad, because no one could complain about what followed, the high-energy Underland.
In companies where the artistic director (here, Petronio) creates most of the works, it's understandable that there will be a certain similarity in style as well as attitude. Both Architecture (2012)and Underland (2011) depended on the clarity and richness of ballet with its turned-out legs, lush bends and elegant arms—but that was about as far as it went, other than the occasional cabriole and piqué turns. His idea of structure relies more on chaos theory, with big stretches of complex but highly idiosyncratic movement interspersed with repeated motifs. Again and again a dancer (or two, or three) flung a leg skyward, and swung it around in a big arch, letting the momentum propel him in a circle. As the dancers are uniformly limber and strong, that movement had its own grandeur, a statement of power.
The Architecture of Loss had a scattershot feel, like building blocks flung willy-nilly and yet each block is rigorously outlined. Dancers come and go, sometimes moving in tandem, but mostly moving in his or her own orbit. They slow down, speed up, slow down again. In the background grainy, murky images that suggest so many X-rays appear on a huge screen, sliced into three blocks. At first the splotchy images are all gray, but later they turn to yellow and pink.
The dancing is odd but the costumes are a lot odder: a single sleeve with feathers, for example, or a top that is so tattered that all that is left are strings. Then to throw you off balance, several men are wearing gray slips.
The music, of course, is equally complex, ranging from plaintive cellos to sounds of cars revving up. Sometimes the light casts shadows; other times it bathes them in a warm glow, but in all, the mood of loss and melancholy prevails.
Compared to the somber and abstract Architecture, excerpts from Underland had a giddy, circus feel. There were also far more displays of emotional connection. The dancers seemed human, not strange entities, and Nick Cave's music simply throbbed with emotion.
Each of the 11 segments in Underland had its own distinct mood and style, but the idea is of survival, sometimes with a wild and restless air, sometimes with one more pensive. And there is room for humor and extravert energy, as in "The Carny," where women in red tutus and pale bras team up with men to pull and throws with zippy steps. A fourth woman in a teal tutu appears like a comet, and dances alongside a man in a floor-length coat.
In "The Ship Song," two couples bunch tight together, leaning or cradling each other, swaying and stretching, never moving far apart. One man is still in his dressing gown, while the women wear long, old-fashioned peasant dresses. To the plaintive song "Come sail your ships around me and burn your bridges down," the couples embrace tenderly.
The last work ends appropriately with all 10 dancers coming together. They begin walking in a long line, and then form a circle. Finally they fan out to cover the stage, with all of the wing curtains lifted to show the sides and back of stage. "Death is Not the End," sings Cave, though with the dancers in such harmony, they could not look more alive.
◊ To give you an idea of the music, here's Nick Cave's "Death is Not the End" (a Bob Dylan cover), from the 1996 album Murder Ballads. The song also features vocals by Kylie Minogue, Blixa Bargeld, Shawn MacGowan and Mick Harvey:
◊ Read our interview with Petronio here.
◊ Photos copyright Sharen Bradford of The Dancing Image.
◊ And here's a video of Underland in rehearsal, from 2011: