What's left behind

By DEBRA CASH  |  May 21, 2008

In a hooded black sweatshirt, hardscrabble jeans, and bare feet, Ouramdane moved from darkness to darkness. He switched back and forth between pre-recorded voiceovers and stream-of-consciousness French poetry spoken into a microphone (with both sets of words translated on the stage’s back wall). At times he stood alone, the only figure in a vast rice paddy. Later, during a sequence that describes his trip to Saigon, he was erased by the neon of the newly capitalist city’s corporate logos.

Ouramdane lifted his narrow hips, rolled like an earthworm, and walked as if his feet were unfamiliar beneath him. His fantastically spasmodic breakdancing looked like mania — and, deliberately, like a reimagining of his father’s electrocution.

There were much happier home movies woven into the 20th-anniversary performances of Prometheus Dance at the Boston Conservatory Theatre. Video excerpts from two decades of repertory — all created by Diane Arvanites-Noya or Tommy Neblett, or both in collaboration — reminded me that in the course of their careers the two have taken on a range of themes and explored a range of musical genres. (The video retrospective also reminded me that as the price of video technology has come down, even small-fry dance companies have had the chance, if not the obligation, to improve their archival records, but that’s a story for a different day.) The two premieres on this weekend’s program, I’m sad to say, didn’t reflect that range.

Lignage, set to a selection of Maurizio Pollini’s extraordinary performances of Chopin’s Études, responds to the composer’s arpeggios and the music’s undertow but not its shapeliness. The all-woman company (Prometheus has included men in the past and adds them as projects require) wear mottled brown dresses so that as they run past one another they resemble autumn leaves scattered by random gusts. There’s a motif where Megan Schenk cupped her hands before her with a sense of calm expectancy; later, the older Nicole Sell Danizio repeated that gesture in a way that indicated she did not expect her empty hands to be filled. But the choreographic language here was not up to the dance’s emotional demands. Arvanites-Noya and Neblett relied on shapes where the dancers bent at the waist, bisecting their bodies, and then either reached up or swirled around. In Lignage the dancers returned to line formations; in Tabula Rasa — a piece apparently about social anomie that was commissioned more than a decade ago by the Walnut Hill School but is only now getting its Boston premiere — similar shapes were resolved in circles.

Prometheus has often employed props as metaphors: chairs, buckets, branches, stones. In the 2006 Devil’s Wedding the props on hand are a flimsy metal ladder leaning against a wall washed in blood-red light, a heap of sandbags, and black scarves. This is meant to convey the plight of Arab women, but Devil’s Wedding turns into a polemic that boils down to “War bad. Hijab worse.” A dance that the choreographers say was inspired by the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran could have felt like the graphic distillation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis — taking us behind the headlines to understand a world in conflict from a female point of view. Instead, the dance reflects stereotypes held by well-meaning outsiders. Whatever happens in the living rooms and bomb shelters where women gather in the strife-torn corners of the Muslim world, these women experience each other as distinct individuals. The rhythmic counterpoint based on the drumming score by Armenian duo Serart and French trio Rajna had intermittent power, but the choreographers’ decision to focus on an ensemble reduced these women to undifferentiated objects of pity.

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