A stairway to purgatory

The dancers of [purtgatorio] POPOPERA in dress rehearsal at the Joyce Theater. (AFP photo)

Vocalist Michaela Riener, center, and two dancers in a dress rehearsal at the Joyce Theater. (AFP photo)

I couldn’t help but think of Led Zeppelin as the score Michael Gordon wrote for Emio Greco | PC‘s dance piece [purgatorio] POPOPERA unspooled at the Joyce Theater last night. Michael, one of the three founders of the Bang on a Can new-music organization, is very much a product of rock and roll, and his compositions are heavily influenced by a rock aesthetic, in this case Zep.

Dance is not my favorite form of performance, but the prospect of hearing interesting and provocative music keeps drawing me into the dance theater. I’ve sat through many mystifying dances just to hear the music.

But [purgatorio] POPOPERA was a pleasant surprise. Emio Greco‘s choreography and the dancing were as inspired — and inspiring — as the music. That seems to stem from the fact that the work is a total collaboration between the visual and the aural, as Michael uses the dancers as the band, making them play the score on electric guitars while dancing.

Having actors double as orchestra is hardly a new idea. British director John Doyle regularly uses his cast as instrumentalists as well as actors, as he did on Broadway with his 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd and in 2006’s Company.  In this piece, the movement and the music are woven into an organic whole. As director Pieter C. Scholten (the PC of the dance company) explained, Michael was chosen for the work because they wanted “a composer who could compose almost out of the bodies of the dancers.” And that’s exactly what it felt like, as the dancers coiled around their dark, shiny guitars, strumming them, working them, dancing with them as if they were part of them. There are no perceptible seams between score and choreography; they work perfectly together, woven into a single fabric.

The set is equally stunning: A nearly bare stage with a round screen on which are projected blurry images and titles bearing the days of the week in sequence, each day linked with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. A row of electric guitars adorns the back of the stage, while a set of black risers forms the stairway to heaven or hell (who can really say?) at stage left.

The piece opens with crashing, slightly dissonant guitar chords that evoke memories of the strumed chord than announces “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. But here, instead of blossoming into a powerful song, [purgatorio] broke into open flame, with guitar chords building in the first real hint of Zep — or more specifically, Zep channeled through Jeff Buckley.

The dancers explored virtually every type of dance movement imaginable, from classical ballet to jazz dance to modern. Early on, the dancers move without guitars in a chorus dance to “I Got Life” from Hair, a choice that seems just a bit calculating given the current Broadway revival of the hippie musical. Near the end, after playing a bit of accordion, vocalist Michaela Riener offers a complete change of pace by singing a Bach aria while the dancers slash at their guitars.

Composer Michael Gordon

Composer Michael Gordon

This piece is the second installment of the Dutch dance company’s planned triptych based on Dante’s tripartite Divine Comedy. The first part, Hell, premiered four years ago. All the while, a black-masked Greco flits around the edges of the action, occasionally stepping in and interacting with the dancers, creating a shadowy character that could be Virgil, Dante’s guide.

The only thing that really marred an otherwise extraordinary experience on Wednesday night was the talkback after the performance. A woman who had been involved in intense conversation with the house’s ushers after the show was the first to ask a questio: What was this piece about?

Granted, that sort of literal question about abstract performance art can suggest that the questioner simply doesn’t get it, and never will. But even so, it’s a fair question. Some people need to have a point of reference, to be told what it is they’re experiencing. And at the same time, creators frequently hate to answer the question.

But Pieter displayed an unattractive streak of arrogance when he simply dismissed the question by calling it an “insult” to the work. “Your experience is what the story is about.”

It was a telling remark.

EMIO GRECO | PC’s  [purgatorio] POPOPERA, through Sunday, Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Ave., Manhattan.  (212) 242-0800, http://www.joyce.org. $10 to $49.

Here’s an excerpt from the world premiere performance at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam on June 19, 2008.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “[purgatorio] POPOPERA trailer on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod

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