Review: Dancing for themselves in an underworld of shadows

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Review: Dancing for themselves in an underworld of shadows
Elliot Marmouset (background) and Vincent Van Der Plas of Cullberg dance company performing in ‘Horse, The Solos’ at the Joyce Theater, in New York on Feb. 1, 2023. Cullberg, formerly Cullberg Ballet, was welcome programming at the Joyce, a New York theater that tends to steer clear of experimental work. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Seven bodies dance in the light, in the dark and in the shadowy in between. One raises a knee as a toe languidly stirs the air. A single arm dangles above the head as a leg extends behind, hovering close to the floor. Arms bend at the elbows with dripping, shimmering fingers. Deborah Hay’s hourlong “Horse, the Solos” is a hypnotic underworld: Gradually, you descend into it, and gradually, it takes hold.

Lush, yet elusively so — this “Horse” has a way of galloping into the unknowable — the work comes alive in seven solos performed mostly all at once by Cullberg, a Swedish contemporary company making its Joyce Theater debut. Hay was an associate artist with the company from 2019 to 2022.

Cullberg, formerly Cullberg Ballet, was welcome programming at the Joyce, a New York theater that tends to steer clear of experimental work. Hay, a founding member of Judson Dance Theater — the rebellious 1960s collective that included Trisha Brown, David Gordon and Yvonne Rainer — offers a subtle, slippery and deeply internal take on what a dance can be.

When Hay choreographs, her mind isn’t full of instructions and steps. Music isn’t a priority, even though in “Horse,” created for Cullberg in 2021, the score by composer Graham Reynolds provides an ominous, stark environment that rumbles with sounds evocative of the natural world, in both its beauty and, because of climate change, despair.

Hay’s method is to wake up bodies by asking questions — cagey questions, thorny questions, questions with no straight answers. What if every cell in your body has the potential to see what your eyes see? What if every cell in your body has the potential to perceive time passing?

Responses come, not through words, but movement. It’s almost impossible to grasp the entirety of what the dancers are exploring with their bodies in “Horse” — it’s too delicate. But, in a program note, Hay writes that the dance “relies on two common attributes of survival, risk and efficiency.” That feels correct. Their motion emanates from a private, interior place.

Along with the dancing, another element is important: the severe, gorgeous lighting by Minna Tiikkainen, who washes the stage in pools of shadows, which give the dancers a painterly glow as they slip in and out of brightness, in and out of focus. Sometimes they don’t register beyond silhouettes, leaving traces on the stage — smudges of red and fuchsia, as rendered by Behnaz Aram’s costumes. But there are also surprises: sudden blackouts and, at one point, an abrupt surge of light. While individual performers come into the foreground (and into the light) from time to time, there is a secretive quality to the dance; faces are often obscured. We get to know the dancers as individuals, not by their expressions but through the expressiveness of their bodies and their shapes.

As they shift and, almost imperceptibly, drop their weight, crumpling over or slipping into slivers of darkness, Hay forces us to pay attention to subtle acts: to the swaying of hips, the unfurling of arms, the delicacy of walking on the balls of the feet — and also to the resilience that such risk and efficiency demand.

The pandemic didn’t just affect the creation of “Horse,” it guided it to a different place. Hay wasn’t able to travel from Austin, Texas, where she lives, to Stockholm, so she created the work virtually; instead of choreographing a group work, it became this converging of solos. (She credits Jeanine Durning, one of her longtime performers and a rehearsal director at Cullberg, with the coaching.) The shutdown of theaters also canceled the work’s original premiere, so Hay proposed an alternative: Why not have the dancers perform the work without an audience? What might they glean from that experience?

In “Dear Dancer,” a short film directed by Marcus Lindeen exploring the creation of “Horse,” Hay refers to her process of asking questions as a “lifetime project” in which the “value of the experiment is to keep it going even if you are the only witness of your own dancing.”

Because of the pandemic, that kind of expression isn’t so limited or alien: For many during the shutdown, dancing with no one watching became a reality. In “Horse” — now with spectators — Hay takes that idea further, creating the sensation that we are witnessing individual worlds. The dancers rarely touch; moments of close encounter become part of the work’s fabric. The dancers don’t even perform for each other as much as for themselves. And all the while, “Horse” completely ignores us, the audience. It’s such a relief.

But in the spirit of Hay, questions persist: Are they even performing? What is a performance? “Horse” is both boring and beautiful; it’s like falling in love with a piece of lace. Hay’s work requires patience and a willingness to pay attention — it’s an accumulation of slight shifts of rhythm, the articulation of joints and unwavering focus. After the dancers performed the work without an audience in March 2021, Hay writes that they “soared, at least this is what they told me.”

Most compelling was that in this live setting, they hung onto that feeling of performing for no one. They bowed, but without needing love. It was strangely thrilling.

Cullberg: Through Feb. 5 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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