How does a choreographer tell a story in dance without telling a story? This question hangs over Luca Veggetti’s take on Euripides’ The Bacchae for Morphoses. The company co-founded by Christopher Wheeldon and Lourdes Lopez has, since Wheeldon’s departure, reconfigured itself as a pick-up ensemble whose profile changes yearly with a new resident artistic director and new dancers. Veggetti’s Bacchae (which premiered at the Joyce Theater October 25 through 30) marks the debut of Morphoses’ new identity (Veggetti will be succeeded in 2012 by the Swedish choreographer-filmmaker Pontus Lidberg).
The 5th-century Greek tragedy weaves a complicated web of family conflicts into larger themes, such as religious intolerance, revenge, remorse, and the arrogance that comes before a fall. Dionysus, god of wine and fertility, visits Thebes, his birthplace, in disguise, in order to exonerate his dead mother Semele from having (supposedly) lied about his parentage. He is, as she said, the son of Zeus. King Pentheus (his cousin) has forbidden the all-female bacchic rites in honor of Dionysus. In retaliation, the god bewitches Semele’s three sisters (who didn’t believe the Zeus-as-lighting-bolt story), into joining the ecstatic, ivy-chewing maenads who are roving the hills, tearing animals limb from limb.
Dionysus, pretending to be one of his priests, piques Pentheus’s curiosity about the bacchanal and convinces him to dress as a woman and observe the bloody goings-on. The result is inevitable. In her god-struck frenzy, Agave, Dionysus’s aunt and Pentheus’s mother, rips her son apart and returns home bearing his head in her hands—still thinking it’s a calf she has slain.
So how does a choreographer approach a dance equivalent of that? From a very great distance, I’d guess, judging from what Veggetti and dramaturge Luca Scarlini (who also adapted the text) came up with. Morphoses’ Bacchae is a stylish arrangement of images and dances that defy being linked to the plot summary provided in the program. It’s as if Veggetti and his collaborators aimed to create an atmosphere of religious mystery, dread, and animal ferocity without developing (or even identifying) characters, their goals, or their acts.
Bacchae begins with a theatrical flourish that boosts the spectators’ expectations. When they enter the Joyce Theater, they find gorgeous Frances Chiaverini lying in a pool of light on a dark stage, exercising her long, lean body in compelling ways. A sudden PING!! sounds, and the house lights go out. In the darkness, the husky, foreign-accented voice of a woman (Eva-Maria Kuhrau on tape) begins to speak of dire matters from within Paolo Aralla’s hauntingly atmospheric score. A new light picks out a featureless wooden puppet, lying in one of the positions that Chiaverini has emphasized. An eerie effect. Perhaps this puppet is a version of Dionysus, as is she (after all, in the play the god is once referred to as the “girl-faced stranger”). Puppeteer Candice Burridge manipulates the two-foot figure in an inscrutable pantomime. Blackout.
When the lights (elegantly designed by Roderick Murray) come on again, the stage has become a space walled on three sides by lightweight black curtains that ripple easily (stage design by Veggetti). Dancers enter from the sides by slithering under them. On a not-very-large, low, white platform in the middle of the stage, a woman stands beside what looks like an ornate pillar taller than she is. Erin Lesser not only plays this contrabass flute, she breathes into it, clicks her fingers on it, and makes other sounds that conjure up fearsome winds and who knows what sibylline predictions. (Eventually she leaves the stage, but returns near the end with a regular flute).
Various of the dancers (there are 11 in all) take turns delivering short passages of text from one or the other of the Joyce’s two aisles. In this first scene, Veggetti divides his chorus into two groups, then sets them in counterpoint, joins them in unison, or breaks them up. The excellent dancers imbue Veggetti’s fierce, clearly-designed moves with the kind of muscular pressure that makes you believe the air around them is honey-thick. I’m fascinated by Emma Pfaeffle and Brittany Fridenstine; you’d take them for twins were it not for their dissimilar faces. Small, trim, and sturdy as ponies, they hurtle into steps and freeze momentarily, rock-firm, before tackling the next maneuver. The performers wear high-necked, sleeveless leotards and brown pants or trunks (designed by Veggetti and Benjamin Briones), plus socks: skidding adds impetus to the movement.
But what is going on here? It was from an article by Susan Reiter in City Arts that I learned that Chiaverini represents Dionysus and Adrian Danchig-Waring (guesting from New York City Ballet) embodies Pentheus. If Gabrielle Lamb is linked with Agave, she also stands for all the wilding women. She mouths words spoken by Kuhrau, e.g.: “. . .the god telling me I have to kill him.” Without coming into contact with the other dancers, she performs some extraordinary moves on the edge of the white platform—splitting her legs apart and bending forward to wrap her arms under them and come up with claws for fingers. Words recited earlier—“lions,” “tigers,” “teeth,” “claws”—affix themselves to her.
Do the long, slim poles that several of the women lash about represent the maenadic fury that doesn’t otherwise appear in the choreography? (Those poles, struck on the floor, make a loud sound; either the platform is miked or the gestures are keyed to Aralla’s echoing score). Veggetti practices a restraint that could have been influenced by Japanese theater. Danchig-Waring and Chiaverini seem not to see each other for a long time, and interact only briefly. Lamb cradles Danchig-Waring seconds before a blackout. Four men (Christopher Bordenave, Brandon Cournay, Willy Laury, and Morgan Lugo) intermittently make contact with the women (Sarah Atkins and Yusha-Marie Sorzano complete the cast).
The piece ends suddenly and unexpectedly. Everyone has wandered in and gathered on or near the white platform. Blackout. This is catharsis?
You have to admire Veggetti for ambitious thinking. The problem is that he has strayed so far from Euripides into a garden of abstraction that any emotional impact is nullified. The coolness is produced in part by the choreography’s unvaryingly powerful dynamic and medium-tempo pace. Except for a brief, wobbly, knock-kneed moment by Lamb, none of the terrific performers wavers, pulls back, takes stock, releases tension, or catapults into madness.
“Oh, then, like a colt as he runs by a river,/ A colt by his dam, when the heart of him sings,/ With the keen limbs drawn and the fleet foot a-quiver,/ Away the Bacchanal springs !” Gilbert Murray’s 1902 translation may not have pomo creds, but it has the kind of exultant rhythm that Veggetti’s Bacchae has no truck with. His dance is almost as clear and passionless and strong of line as one of those handsome, unfurnished, contemporary apartments that hang above Manhattan waiting for occupancy.