Susan Marshall, who specializes in the dark complexity of human relationships on the one-on-one or small-cluster scale, tackled more global issues for her millennium offering. The Descent Beckons, shown at the Joyce just before the last century flickered out, takes the form of a New Year’s party that gets out of hand. The silly, liberating antics expected on such occasions escalate at intervals into orgiastic nastiness. Driven by mass hysteria, a crowd torments its scapegoats until the corpse-strewn stage recalls the worst atrocities of the past hundred years and terrible rituals extending back into prehistory. It’s typical of the dual tone of this piece – now it’s funny, now it’s not – that most of the bodies were inert to begin with. Dozens of naked inflatable plastic dummies, manipulated by the live dancers with deft, gleeful savagery, “flesh out” the scene, while another sort of non-dance figure, the comedian Lisa Kron, is inserted to deflect the attention from the unspeakable to the sweetly bumbling – or perhaps to propose that the two modes can occur in tandem.
As even this brief report may suggest, the piece lacks focus. The ideas ostensibly behind it aren’t consistently or effectively animated in what actually happens, and what actually happens has happened many times over (more clearly and vividly) in countdown-to-oblivion works by choreographers as disparate as Alwin Nikolais and Paul Taylor. I suspect that Marshall’s unique brand of dance – ordinary gestures and moves, used in a semi-abstract way, accumulating to wield a terrific emotional blow – works better at the personal, psychological level than it can at the generic, sociological level. Marshall has been much more persuasive in probing the me-and-you relationship (Arms, Standing Duet) and the nature of family ties (Interior With Seven Figures) than she is here investigating the operating mechanisms of larger tribes. As for succumbing to the lure of timely issues and ambitious, multi-faceted productions, she is hardly alone, but given the nature of her considerable gifts, she may be on the wrong track.