Wizards of Oz

The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s October-long “Next Wave Down Under” festival saturated New York with Australian performance art – dance, spoken theater, music, film, and new media. Representing postmodern dance, Melbourne’s Chunky Move and the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre, playing the Joyce at the same time, offered hard-edged, physically and visually striking productions as sophisticated – on the surface at least – as anything emanating nowadays from New York or Paris, confirmed capitals of the avant-garde.

Birdbrain, ADT’s presentation, choreographed by the company’s leader, Garry Stewart, is a commentary at several removes on Swan Lake. Drawing only minimally on the actual achievement of Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov, it refers to the generic notion of the celebrated ballet that hovers in a dancegoer’s imagination. Like other latter-day postmodern work, it is arch, wry, and idea-driven, terrified of sentiment and beauty, and full of rage expressed viscerally. Again typical of its kind, it co-opts its vocabulary from high, low, and exotic movement genres. While the piece pretends to far more than it accomplishes, it has one memorable passage: a long solo for a woman – Odette, let’s call her – undergoing a horrific physical transformation over which she has no control. It evokes not only the mythical terrors of woman-into-swan but also the real-life bodily traumas of adolescence, illness, and aging.

Gideon Obarzanek, who heads up Chunky Move, specializes in the kind of anti-grace, anti-harmony choreography his company’s name promises, setting it to the unremitting din and steady pulse of techno music that might accompany Armageddon. He claims in interviews that this is a response to the prevalent culture, though it seems more like an all-too-familiar symptom of it. His Crumpled and Corrupted 2 abound in grotesque postures and spastic actions, in bodies energetically launching themselves toward self-destruction or retreating into feeble incapacity. Predictably, attempts at person-to-person bonding are futile; the largely depersonalized figures alternate between the roles of victim and attacker. Because they’re so anesthetized, the sight isn’t even instructive.

The décor, for both bodies and stage, is extremely stylish. The costumes include stiff, crinkled dresses and translucent body suits that behave in handsome and fascinating ways. The icy, fierce-glare lighting and accompanying mists, though trite, are effective. In Corrupted 2, a gigantic rotating kite-shaped form that repeatedly separates a pair attempting to connect (threatening to fell them as it does so) is a stunning demon-machine, usurping the role of Fate.

The trouble with all three of the Aussies’ pieces is that, like similar stuff currently attempting to pass itself off as art, they’re essentially consumer products. They provide just what the contemporary audience recognizes as the look – today, everywhere, appearance is nine tenths of the game – of cutting-edge work: themes of violence and alienation treated with intellectual distance and given high-gloss visual glamour.

A quarter-century after Laura Dean played BAM with Drumming, set to Steve Reich’s score for percussion and voice of the same name, the Belgian postmodernist Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker presented her response to the music under the same roof. Both dances echo Reich’s hypnotic, exhilarating procedure of exploring a single brief phrase exhaustively for an hour’s duration. It’s significant that Dean’s Drumming was shown in BAM’s Lepercq Space – back in 1975 a modest venue for experimental work, today a sleek café – while De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, was ensconced in the proscenium formality of the Opera House. Grander in scale and more deliberately theatrical than Dean’s version, De Keersmaeker’s Drumming is affecting in its own way, with the shifting patterns – eerily ever-familiar and ever-new – parsing and animating the vast space and, like Reich’s music, offering intimations of the celestial.

Chunky Move
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Australian Dance Theatre
At the Joyce Theater.

Wizards of Oz