Some dance works are more interesting to read about than to experience in the theater. We all know the kind, the ones whose choreographers give articulate interviews about the premise or thesis they are exploring in their latest dance, priming the audience to appreciate its deeper meaning—or maybe defying them not to find it a profound statement.
Wayne McGregor, whose London-based Random Dance performed his 2004 work "AtaXia" for two nights at the New York State Theater, described a fascinating process behind the work's creation in several interviews. Certainly his exploration of neurological disorders, including six months of research in collaboration with Cambridge University neuroscientists, was an illuminating experience for him. In the hour-long dance—named for a disorder that severs the link between the mind and body, leading to loss of mobility and coordination—he explores the implications of such a loss of control, and sets out to interfere with his ten dancers' usually sublime command of their physical instrument.
Although it's an interesting concept to present the dancers as the opposite of what they truly are—people whose control of their bodies is at a level far higher than most of us—I found it disconcerting that McGregor wanted to turn them into imitations of those who are painfully limited in their physical abilities. However skillfully they portrayed the ravages of Ataxia, why would we want to see a simulation of this? Not that having dancers move in ungainly, deliberately ugly or even spastic ways is a bad idea—plenty of choreographers have done that, often with intriguing results. But McGregor describes the involvement of an acquaintance afflicted with the disorder, who took part in sessions in the studio, and how he incorporated her limitations and degree of dysfunction into the choreography. An imitation of such impairment by people who are at the opposite end of motor control strikes me as somewhat unseemly.
Of course, if I had read nothing about "AtaXia" before entering the New York State Theater, I might have reacted to it quite differently than I did. But I brought the baggage of McGregor's extensive explanation of the work's evolution, and my own subjective response to it. Presumably some, perhaps most, of the others sitting around me knew nothing more than that this was a highly regarded contemporary British company, or that McGregor is a fast-rising, in-demand choreographer among European ballets troupes.
He definitely has a flashily theatrical vision, and surrounds his dancers with striking, at times intrusive, elements. He set "AtaXia" to a churning, reverberating score by Michael Gordon, performed live (but amplified so intensely that at times it seemed like a recording) by the group Icebreaker. Fluorescent lights flashed, panels descended to obscure the dancers or blur their outlines, and the backdrop featured blurry, watery reflections of the dancers in action. A film sequence in the middle of the piece featured words and phrases, in Russian as well as English, flashing in rapid-fire sequence.
The dancers, barefoot and wearing pale shimmery tops and trunks in cool shades of grey and blue, power their way through sleek, explosive, aggressive movement, heavy on leg extensions and knotty partnering. It is presented in short, abrupt bursts, with nothing developed very far. The exception is a very extended duet, set to a churningly repetitive portion of the score, that seems intended as a centerpiece—perhaps turning point—of the dance, but drags on too long.
In the second half, the dancers' movements veered towards the spasmodic and jerky, with some sections suggesting a loss of control, but there was no real sense of progressive disintegration. Late in the dance, one saw phrases that did not look all that different from what was onstage at the beginning. And many of those portions where the dancers' limbs were splaying and their bodies were denying their intrinsic abilities and control resembled a lot of other examples of fast, furious contemporary choreography that specializes in exploring extremes.
A lot of the dance's intensity seemed to be carried by Gordon's dense, often raucous score, and its disorienting quality was often due to the shadowy lighting design. McGregor can put together punchy short bursts of movement, but this work did not make a strong base for his ability to shape and structure a dance. His choice to resort to silhouettes in the closing moments felt rather pat and illogical, but then coherence and development were not what this piece was about.
Photos by Ravi Deepres