The beginning is not the fall itself, but the struggle to get up. Elijah Labay, the central figure in Patrick Delcroix’s new dance Visible Darkness, lies prone on the stage of the Newmark Theatre, raising his shoulders, lifting his torso, and then sinking back again. He’s been lying there, intermittently resting and struggling to move, for who knows how long. He is discovered, with alarm, and slowly, gently raised, and the dance moves on.
Visible Darkness is one of two world premieres (the other is resident choreographer Ihsan Rustem’s swift and witty new take on that old reliable potboiler Carmen) that opened Thursday evening in NW Dance Project’s newest program, which will repeat Friday and Saturday in the Newmark. Both tell stories, though not in the traditional story-ballet sense: they are narrative, but elliptical, allowing suggestion and mood to fill in much of the storytelling detail.
The story of Visible Darkness is very personal for Delcroix, the French choreographer and Jirí Kylián associate who’s created several dances for NDP beginning in 2011. According to Scott Lewis, NDP’s executive director, it’s about an accident Delcroix had two years ago: “He fell off a ladder while working on his home in The Hague and was found days later, unconscious, with a broken nose and other injuries,” including brain trauma. His recovery was long and arduous. This is Delcroix’s first new dance since the accident, and an emergence: As he says in a program note, “a difficult chapter in my life is complete.”
You don’t need to know this to appreciate Visible Darkness, but the knowledge deepens what is already a rich and moving work, one that is not at all about self-pity but about the push and pull of any struggle, the alternating bouts of stubbornness and compassion, of accepting help and doing it on your own. It could as well be, for instance, about the ebbs and flows of a relationship, and in a way it is. Labay is riveting in the process, partnered beautifully by Lindsey McGill, and four other dancers – Andrea Parson, Ching Ching Wong, Franco Nieto, William Couture – act as echoes and chorus, helpers and observers, companions and fellow travelers. Delcroix’s movements to music by David Lang and Ludovico Einaudi are both strenuous and lyrical, with flashes of wit. There is a rich fluidity to the thing, along with some herky-jerk breaking-up of things, and a classical feel for balances. And a sideways slyness: At the end, when Labay makes a sudden and emphatic nod of his head, it’s like an exclamation point and a punchline rolled into one.
This program is something of an old home week for NDP and its dancers. Like Delcroix, the British dancemaker Rustem has a long and rewarding relationship with the company: As resident choreographer, he works with these dancers every year. Among other things, Rustem tends to infuse his work with smart humor, and his new Carmen is no exception. It uses a good deal of Bizet’s orchestral music from the 19th century sex-and-violence standby, a sizzler of an opera-gateway show that strikes an almost perfect balance between the worlds of musical theater and opera, and is a tempting platform for other art forms as well. (In fact, it began as a novella by Prosper Mérimée.) Rustem’s rethought the details, letting the audience’s familiarity with the story’s blood-red passion fill in a lot of the blanks as he paints with a broad impressionistic brush of movement.
How to make a Carmen that is recognizably Carmen but not like every other Carmen on the block?
“I began researching different versions from different eras,” Rustem writes in his program notes, “and I kept landing on movies, clips, and images from the 1950s. James Dean, early Brando. Harper’s Bazaar highlighting the bold fashions of a rich and colourful time. Those women were so glamorous, yet I always had the impression that behind the perfect facade lived a darker truth – and a flask of gin hidden in the Chanel bag.
“It laid the opportunity to create a setting based around a false utopia – somewhere between Stepford and Wisteria Lane. I settled on a new setting – a ladies’ hair salon and the guys’ barbershop. We took those ’50s inspired silhouettes and gave them a current yet timeless look. James Dean became James Franco. Lana Turner became Lana Del Rey.”
Labay returns as the seductive troublemaker Eli (a stand-in for the opera’s dashing toreador Escamillo) but the center of the show this time around is Parson as a cool, calm, and lover-collecting Carmen. Parson upsets the apple cart of the dance’s tightly controlled little world not so much through unbridled sex appeal as through her ability to exude a kind of magnetic power: She’s an ice queen of a Carmen, a smooth calculator, ruthless in her destructive abilities, in it for the joy of the game. Nieto dances the role of DJ (Don José in the opera), the poor simple schlub who is affianced to sweet Micaëla (McGill) but becomes besotted by Carmen and, well, messes everything up royally.
The world these dangerous lovers crack open is a sharp and cutting one, puckishly and literally: a beauty shop (the Wolf Pack, led by Wong and including Samantha Campbell, Tatiana Barber, and Julia Radick) and the adjoining barbershop (the Barber Guys; Charbel Rohayem, Couture, Kody Jauron, and a fellow played by someone listed in the program as Hair Dryer, who is … well, find out for yourself).
Rustem’s Carmen includes some great comic exaggerated set pieces by the Wolves and Barber Guys, who represent the community as a whole with a sly satiric thrust, and the piece moves with satisfying swiftness toward its goth-Guignol conclusion. Somebody gets it in the end, and, yes, scissors are involved. A word to the wise: Don’t run with ’em.
By coincidence, the night before opening I’d rewatched The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s classic 1939 French film, for the first time in probably 35 years, and I saw some striking parallels to the mood and style of Rustem’s Carmen: the sharp similarities and differences between social classes; the aimlessness of the ruling class; the assignations and invented dangers prompted by boredom; the baring of a culture of stark casual violence masked by a veneer of civility; the deep, mournful tragedy of waste dressed up in the comical costumes of a frivolous masquerade.
The frivolous costumes of Carmen, which help set the seriocomic mood, are by fashion designer Michelle Lesniak, with sets by Luis Crespo. Bizet’s music is deftly selected and arranged by Rodion Shchedrin, and the rich and well-thought-out lighting, as for Visible Darkness, is by Jeff Forbes.
NW Dance Project’s Carmen and Visible Darkness repeat at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 17-18, in the Newmark Theatre. Ticket information here.