The following review is courtesy of John Munger, Director of Research and Information for Dance USA
Thoughts of Robert Frost insist on being attended. “ Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” wrote the American poet.
In Joe Chvala’s Nordic world of titanic, uncaring forces and gods who really ARE crazy, the world doesn’t end in fire or ice; it begins between them.
The notion is exquisitely Finlandian. Where else would life begin in that sort of climate? The day to day travails of that pre-technological society contended with glacial blizzards on one hand and fire –magical, terrifying fire – on the other hand. Between the lethal calm of arctic drifts and the consuming blaze that could roar through thatch and logs, or scorch agonized disclosure from captives, was the warm and comfy bed where life begins, thrust rhythmically into mystical quickening by man and wife.
Or not. The first resonating image of this two-hour layering of epic Norse mythology with twentieth century angst is a mundane contemporary breakfast dialogue over coffee and newspaper in which the man irritably snaps, “ You’re not pregnant are you?!” and the wife sighs cynically before answering, “ Fat chance.” Well, well.
A great many conflicting images compete for our attention from the very outset. When I came down the steep aisle of the McGuire Theater I first noticed on stage the ritualized place settings of a baronial table and its large, solid-color, stark furnishings. Then I saw the aluminum tubing and black drapes of the frankly disclosed functional theater, then the big-screen projection on which mythic images alternated with disturbing facial close-ups. There was a crawl-text along the base of the screen that might at one moment explain how, in the Eddas of Norse mythology, trees grew from the hair of the First Man and moments later might narrate how some married guy regrets that the memory of his father calling his mother a bitch has resonated into his own marriage.
The lights dimmed. Enter the First Man and First Woman …uh… quibbling over some unspecified editorial blood-boiler in the morning paper. Epic grandeur contrasted with robe-and-slippered triviality. There was ominously provocative foreshadowing of things to come. There was a laugh or two. There was mystery. The scene ended, fade to dark, and the actors themselves joined efforts with a swiftly efficient set-change that took them out of character and into the sort of experience you relish at cutting edge productions with no budget and no fly-space.
Then wham! Straight into the halls of the Gods and the beginnings of the universe. Dancers swirled in an exquisitely structured sort of Brownian motion evocative both of chaos and of emerging order. Sound effects thundered, dramatic lighting design exploded with microprecise focus, and amidst this high-tech theatricality I was ready for the Gods themselves. I got them. Odin had groupies and an eye-patch, Loki was a vaudevillian song-and-dance man, while Ruth MacKenzie’s glorious voice poured a rich syrup of high-art musicality over the raucous mead-hall shenanigans. Oh, and the Gods called each other bad names using the F-word a fair amount.
So in a nutshell there was a hell-of-a-lot jammed together with a Muspellheim-of-a-lot. The tone shifted with incredible speed, variety and complexity. I got confused. Not so much in the intellectual sense of confusion, but confused in the audience-to-performer relationship. Was this narrative or episodic? Literal or impressionistic? Dance or theater? Funny, or scary, or polemical, or vaudevillian? I wanted so badly to enjoy everything and to know how I should do so. But it was hard to follow the thread.
There were wonderful “ moments” that lasted a long time.
The duet of female competition, vengeance, hatred and subtle erotic possibility between Megan McClellan and Karla Grotting was a miracle of utterly abandoned risk and commitment. They transfigured themselves, each other and me too with dance-skill that was so virtuosic and so masterful that it went beyond an unschooled audience’s limitation of only seeing hard tricks and entered the realm of jaw-dropping total theater.
The opening of the second half, just after intermission, was an entrance into the hellish world of Muspellheim. It was one of the least explained and most comprehensible transitions of this many-layered, many-toned evening. Too often in the first half hour of the show I got lost in the narratives that came at me through song lyrics, on-screen-text, spoken word, and mime. Now welcome to the gates of Muspellheim. It was scary as hell. That’s all I needed.
Thus also with the women’s duet. I didn’t really need their intricate family relations, nor even their names. The dance told me everything. Similarly, when Ruth MacKenzie near the very end of the evening sang in (I think) Finnish instead of narrative English, it was the most magical of her moments. I sensed, rather than “ grasped.” It was visceral, rather than explicated.
Soon after the entrance to Muspellheim came a hard-hammering dance that used to be called “ The Red Doors” and that was one of three or four set pieces, each wonderful, that showcased Joe’s particular genius for using movement and percussive elements to generate RAW POWER. There was also the bureaucratic table with the paper shuffling, at once hysterical and loathsome. And the Berserkers, a masterpiece of pure fury.
I think that part of what Joe does is to created intricate and very fast spatial patterns, mostly with where the body takes the hands, often emphasizing these patterns with sticks or other percussive devices held in the hands. Watching the white or red or silver objects flashing through tight space like animated lace at light-speed conveys, not the detail of dancers’ awareness of where they are, but the power of their mastery. We feel the power because we, frankly, feel awe.
See this show. You may have to wade through some challenging exposition and a maelstrom of conflicting theatrical tones, but you’re gonna get your breath knocked out.