The Tenant: A Dark Tale Told Through Movement
The Tenant | Joyce Theater, Nov 6 – 11, 2018
New narrative dance productions—as opposed to abstract or “pure dance”—exist in a kind of netherworld these days. They are most often created in the genre of ballet, which has a long history of classical and romantic full-length works. Many are remakes of the old chestnuts such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, La Bayadere, or Romeo and Juliet.
As for contemporary dance, there is a predominant focus on the form itself, rather than using dance as a language to tell a story. This includes the plethora of neo-classical ballets that frequently fetishize the pointe shoe, extreme flexibility, and extend the traditional man-lifts-woman trope; the conceptual, often opaque self-reflection of post-modern; and the delectation of form in the continuations of modern dance (as proponed in the styles of the modern giants such as Cunningham, Taylor, Graham, Ailey).
But people love stories, and so the dance-drama has emerged as a viable alternative to the classic tutu ballets. The most popular and prolific creator in the field is Matthew Bourne, whose largely text-free productions straddle ballet and musical theater forms. He put it right in the title of Play Without Words, a sophisticated, stylish show set in the mod ’60s. His renditions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty put their accompanying tried-and-true Tchaikovsky scores to good use, but with serious modern twists—respectively, a corps of fierce male swans and a Goth setting with vampires.
Arthur Pita performed with Bourne’s company for years; the pair are off-stage partners. Thus it makes some sense that Pita is furthering the dance-drama canon as an extension of Bourne’s aesthetic. He interpreted Kafka’s Metamorphosis with the Royal Ballet’s Edward Watson, shown at the Joyce in 2013. His production of The Tenant, a novel by Roland Topor was, in the wake of the recent Quadrille platform, another step by the Joyce to expand its purview of dance. Starring James Whiteside and Cassandra Trenary of ABT, it was an appropriately-scaled, compact production for the relatively intimate theater. Pita choreographed, directed, and designed the sets for the show, with an imaginative score written, and elements played live, by Frank Moon.
The story follows Trelkovsky (Whiteside), who moves into a Paris apartment vacated (in body) by Simone (Trenary), a substance abuser who kills herself by leaping off the balcony. He gradually assumes her spirit, transforms with the help of some feathered slippers and women’s clothing, and follows the same fate. The set, designed by Pita, becomes almost another character—a portent of a time when smart technology animates our previously inert habitats. Apparently the action takes place in the near future, where a doorside smart screen reads your face to unlock the door; the Siri-esque appliance sounds a greeting and an alert when visitors or packages arrive. The tenants swipe the screen of a phone-like gadget to change songs (hint: Beethoven’s symphonies mean trouble).
The L-shaped wall unit, of tinted plexi, is formed by panels and doors that open to closets and an entrancing, backlit Parisian cityscape with the Eiffel Tower as its focus. When a character opens the balcony doors, the view evokes awe: a sense of liberation from the contained, sterile apartment, and the siren lure of an escape from the demons that seem to be the only permanent inhabitants of the place.
Pita’s movement is expressionistic—extreme extensions, attitudes in which the body is convex, windmilling arms. The dance sequences are frustratingly brief, instead becoming subservient to the many tasks that spell out daily life—unpacking, undressing/dressing, brushing teeth—and the gestures of excess and the loss of rationale such as drinking, snorting coke, vomiting, and taking a knife to the wrist in a futile suicide attempt. The two main characters engage in a duet near the end in what is perhaps the final exchange of souls. Simone convulses, punching her ribcage and flinging her arms as she battles demons. Trelkovsky, behind a transparent box, makes the transformation into the tormented Tenant, wearing a long wig, dress, and heels. It takes several tries before he finally ends his life, as a bizarre lawn statue boy slides onstage, puffing smoke and adding to the overall surreal atmosphere.
Our close proximity to the dancers magnified their athleticism and muscularity, which is difficult to see in larger houses such as the Met or Koch Theater. In those usual ABT venues, Trenary reads as more delicate and petite, but up close her power and fearlessness are obvious. Whiteside has a highly articulated physique—his chiseled jaw actually works against his plausibility as a woman. (Whiteside also performs in drag independently.) But his fierce stage presence is always magnetic, and his star power adds luster to a show that escapes pigeonholing. The Tenant points up the demand for stories told through movement that don’t always feature white tutus.
Susan Yung is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.