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Thursday, April 19, 2007
Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD
Presented by ArtPower!

*THIS REVIEW FIRST PUBLISHED ON SANDIEGO.COM

When one walks into hell, one doesn’t usually expect to find dancers lip-synching to 80s rock while shaking their hips. Yet that’s just the scene that greeted audience members on Thursday night when ArtPower! presented the Netherlands-based Emio Greco/PC dance company’s performance of Hell.

As the audience entered UCSD’s Mandeville Auditorium, with house lights still on, the performance was already well underway with the dancers taking turns on “lead vocals” to 80s hits by Depeche Mode and Prince flanked by back-up dancers and executing strongly choreographed routines infused with a healthy dose of camp. It was a completely unexpected introduction and, as explained by the artists in a post-show discussion, this was precisely the point.

Naming a show Hell conjures some standard socially agreed upon images and themes (think fire, pitch fork, and lots and lots of red) that artistic directors Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten wanted to play against. In addition to thwarting pre-conceived ideas, the pre-show served create a history for the work, suggesting that the dancing had been taking place for a while and that the audience was walking into something that was already established. The show did not begin from nothing – there was no blank stage, followed by a blackout and then the curtain rising to start the show. Rather, it was as if the dance had been taking place forever, for eternity. The audience walked into a performance that had a past and, therefore, had a future, albeit a dark and unpredictable one.

A jumpy 40s jitterbug tune then dissolved into Marilyn Manson’s creepy Beautiful People and slowly the world onstage faded from view, darkness crept in, house lights were extinguished and the dancers fell off one at a time until only one was left on an empty dark stage.

An explosion of sound shook the theater and a shock of light illuminated the upstage corner as an arch of light bulbs flew on. Suddenly, the entertainment of the previous songs and dancing was replaced by stillness and silence and a lighted arch that suggested an eerie carnival. Balancing the stage on the opposite end of the arch was a full-sized tree, leafless and cold, it’s branches lighted from above by a cold white light.

As Greco and Scholten later explained, the tree and the arch became the two symbols that for them represented the elements of hell. In one sense, the tree represented life or at least the potential for life. It suggested paradise, but was in fact dead. The arch could literally represent the gates of hell but additionally could be seen as a two-way portal – a method for coming and going, a means of transition from one place to the next, wherever those places may be.

On the empty stage, occupied only by the warm yellow gate and the cold white tree, a large lighting device descended from above and threw a strong beam of light across the stage, spilling into the audience and blinding those in its path. For several minutes, the audience sat in silence as this beam made its way across the theater and across the stage, wandering aimlessly as if searching for something.

The lighting design of the show was extraordinary. Indeed, the lights became characters of their own, sweeping across the stage at will, illuminating anything in its path but also serving to erase anyone who failed to enter them. The effect was that the dancers came in and out of the shadows and were more or less visible depending on the light’s whim. At times, it made the dancers appear as mere silhouettes or barely visible outlines. One pass of the light caught a hint of a person who, dressed in all black against the black curtain, was nearly invisible and, after the fact, it was unclear if there had in fact been a person there at all. The lighting was incredibly successful in creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, where nothing is quite as it first seems, and there are always monsters lurking in the dark.

The dancers then slowly entered through the gate one by one, each carrying a music stand that they placed in a semi-circle stretching across the stage, like a chamber orchestra preparing to play. The subsequent sharp shifts of their bodies followed by smooth undulating movement suggested the tuning of instruments.

The movement range of the piece was quite broad. At times, the dancers resembled fish swimming through a stream, other times arms were thrown wildly and legs buckled under pressure. And still other times the movement was classic and straight from the ballet vocabulary. One bright section featured clearly identified entrechat chats, double tours, and sissons. Yet the choreography used the technique as a tool to delve deeper into the body. Greco didn’t shy away from over ballet references. Instead, he peeled away the façade of presentation until the body was able to express something more honest.

To differentiate between sections, sharp blasts of sound and dramatic shifts in light interrupted whatever phrase of music and movement was taking place at the time. The frequent, but always unexpected, crashes served to keep the audience on edge and created a situation where directions could change in a second and one never knew where one would end up next.

One such unexpected section took place under the bare tree and featured equally bare bodies. Perhaps unexpected isn’t a fair term. After all, there was a note inserted in every program warning spectators that “This performance contains full frontal nudity”. And full frontal it was. The dancers stood under the tree, removed all of their clothing, and then switched positions with another dancer whereby they exchanged clothing and got dressed again. It was a simple statement that highlighted the transient nature of identity and the ability to – quite literally – shed ones skin and become someone or something else.

Greco and Scholten in their post-performance discussion, discussed how this scene was drawn directly from Dante’s Inferno, one of their two acknowledged influences of the work. The text served more as an inspiration of theme and a reference point of ideas and imagery and less as a narrative structure for the work, yet they pointed out that the changing of clothes was pulled directly from the literature’s scene of changing identities.

The other classical inspiration comes from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Aside from the recognizable pop songs that made up the “pre-show”, the soundscape of the work was relatively generic – more to create mood than to inspire movement. That being the case, the sudden introduction of Beethoven’s Fifth, one of the most familiar pieces of music ever made, was as disorienting as some of the sound and light shifts and felt, in a way, out of place.

For much of the section that included the symphony, the simple movement didn’t match the dynamics of the music. For the second half of the music, the choreography was performed in the nude, which in itself was a completely different way to experience classical music. Yet even that shock value wore off quickly and while there were some effective moments of synergy with the score, the use of the famous music didn’t satisfy as much as one would hope.

The artists explained that the end of Beethoven signified the departure from hell, although this wasn’t entirely clear in the piece itself. The work ended by once again blurring the lines between performers and audience members. A topless woman came to the front of the stage to look longingly out at the audience, who was illuminated by the rising house lights. As she continued to stare out, a man from the audience rose and walked onto the stage where he stood behind her for an awkward several seconds as the audience uncomfortably wondered whether or not this was part of the show. After he joined the cast in a synchronized phrase, that doubt was erased but the uncertainty was yet another example of how the work questioned certain conventions of theatrical performance.

Emio Greco/PC brought a work that was thoughtful and engaging. Hell played against assumptions of how one might generally see hell. Rather than presenting the expected symbols of hell – like fire or abundant reds – the designers played with the solitary tree, the ominous gate, and an effective balance of icy white lights mixed with warm yellows. Rather than overt personifications of devilish characters, the audience was teased with barely-there shadows, half-lit ghosts, and mysterious entrances and exits.

The affect was thoroughly cinematic with the strong visuals and roaming lights evoking film noir and classic suspense films. In departing from the usual and depicting hell as a place where Beethoven and ballet could also exist, they expanded the idea of what hell could be. And from their perspective, it’s not necessarily a bad place.

Though the movement was often repetitive, and some slow sections lasted a tad longer than they needed to, Emio Greco/PC successfully reconceived the world of hell, presenting a place that was at times scary, at times playful, and always intriguing. They also suggested that hell is not a permanent destination but rather a temporary stop. And judging by the audience’s reaction, they were glad to have visited.

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