The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
October 26, 2011
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
Morphoses, which last year endured the loss of its founding artistic director Christopher Wheeldon, reinvented itself by planning to invite a different artistic director each year to produce new work. Luca Veggetti is the first and his dance drama "Bacchae," inspired by the great Euripides play, premiered this week.
It's loaded with the trappings of avant-garde theater and aims to impress, combining puppetry, onstage musicians, dramatic lighting, a breathy soundtrack like wind on a mountaintop, portentous voiceovers straight out of "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" and stylish contemporary dance in an effort to creat an all-encompassing theatrical experience. It accomplishes must less than it aims to. Still, it has appealing features, though these owe more to the dancers and to the choreography than to the theme of the work or its dramaturgic trappings.
When the curtain goes up, puppeteer Candice Burridge manipulates a large marionette at the front of the stage while the Star Wars voice invokes a "man as puppet" theme that Veggetti uses later in the dance. The lights then rise revealing flautist Erin Lesser and a huge oboe posed center stage in the middle of a raised, spotlit platform about twenty feet square, that serves as a performance space throughout the piece. Later, she plays the flute there. In between, the dancers move on and off of it, while the areas beyond remain in shadow. Paolo Aralla's sound design, with wind noises offset by strident pinging like sonar, creates the ominous atmosphere together with Roderick Murray's lighting.
Despite all this atmosphere, the dance action of the drama remains non-narrative and Veggetti calls his composition a poetic meditation on "The Bacchae" rather than a production of the play. There are five women and six men; New York City Ballet's Adrian Danchig-Waring seems loosely to represent Pentheus; the extraordinary Frances Chiaverini, a Bacchante; and Gabrielle Lamb, Pentheus' mother, who may or may not also at times suggest Dionysus. The group dances for the remainder of the cast may also be intended to suggest ordered society apart from the Bacchic rites.
There are four distinct scenes, each marked by the ominous voice announcing its title, roughly: "Arrival;" "Mountaintop Seduction;" "Possession and Fall;" and finally "Truth and Light." Early on Danchig-Waring declaims how his Pentheus figure hates women because the world of men is orderly while Dionysus finds his devotees mainly among women. After the Bacchantes have torn Pentheus apart, Lamb crouches in a spider-like pose on the stage's central pedestal intoning words to the effect of "I hold his head in my hands," and "the animal didn't know why it died" (my paraphrase). It's the best scene in Veggetti's drama and the only one where the plot, action and theme really sync. Before the mountaintop scene, Lamb and a group from the corps swing martial art sticks, pounding the floor at intervals to Aralla's sonic pinging, suggesting perhaps a group of Gods poking about on the earth below.
All this is hopelessly freighted with clichés, but the piece is saved from sinking under this bombast. In his quieter moments Veggetti creates some interesting movement and tableaux in an appealing contemporary dance and ballet-based medium, but above all because of an extraordinary performance by Chiaverini in the leading woman's role. Tall and powerfully built, she's dark complexioned, black haired and fascinating; a natural star in full control of her body and its effects. Weight, agility, strength, musculature and interpretive power - nothing is missing from her arsenal as a dancer. You'd see the work again just for her; although you'd be bored in all the same places when she's not dancing.
The ultimate failure of piece is that it delivers almost nothing of the power of the original play it's loosely based on, which is as thematically forceful and resonant a work as any in Greek drama. Euripides' "The Bacchae" is a cautionary tale with "give Dionysus his due" as its theme. Pentheus fails to recognize Dionysus and is torn apart by the God's devotees (including his own mother) while trying both to suppress and observe the Bacchic rites. In modern psychological terms, the human race mustn't try to repress its animal and sexual nature. Perhaps it can be tamed by offering due sacrifice to the God, but not denied.
The great classicist William Arrowsmith, in his early -1970's lectures, used to relate this to Freud's "Civilization and Madness." Ordered society, according to Freud, exists by the repression of the most aggressive of human instincts. What leads to neuroses and psychoses is that, the more you deny the God, the more he's liable to tear you apart. This is nothing less than the struggle between body and soul that lies at the heart of much great literature.
Paradoxically, Veggetti's realization of his "Bacchae" does everything possible to obscure this theme while it hammers away at production values in pursuit of dramatic effects. Except for Lamb's scene described above and some moments when Chiaverini moves like a puppet to percussive effects as her feet brush the floor, neither the work's choreography nor its mise-en-scène illustrate the characters' motivations, dramatize the action, or push the plot forward like a good pas d'action would in a ballet.
Veggetti's best choreography falls exactly at the moments when it's most abstract. Chiaverini opened the evening stretching herself in front of the raised curtain before the action started and, except for her puppet dance, the rest of her brilliant perfomance had about as much to do with the plot and theme as her stretching did. The dramatic hokum is precisely what's in the way of the play's native power.
Photographs by Kyle Froman, top and bottom, are of Frances Chiaverini in Lucas Veggetti's "Bacchae"