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Jack Anderson

Portuguese Thunderstorms


Companhia Portuguesa de Bailado Contemporâneo
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
May 16 at 7:30 p.m., May 17 and 18 at 8 p.m., May19 at 2 and 8 p.m., May 20 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., $38
Tickets: (212) 242-0800
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, May 18, 2007

Emilio Cervelló in ''Seven Bird Dreams.'' Photo by Galina Lukianovich.

Vasco Wellenkamp sent choreographic thunderstorms crashing upon the stage in his new double-bill for his Portuguese company. His kinetic lightning bolts were vivid and the action was turbulent, yet not always coherent. Thunderstorms can be like that.

The inspiration for "Seven Bird Dreams" was "The Conference of the Birds," a medieval Persian poem many people with a general interest in world literature have heard about but few, I suspect, have actually read. (I haven't, I confess.) Wellenkamp's production for a cast of 16 began with dancers seated in a row like birds on a perch. When they rose, they spread and flapped their arms, let their chins and heads jut back and forth as birds often do, and swooped through one avian nightmare after another to a sonic collage devised by Wellenkamp that pasted together diverse snippets of music.

The most striking features of Wellenkamp's choreography were its abrupt contrasts between tension and looseness and its intricate twisting movements for standing, crouching, and bending dancers. But these passages, though visually startling, had little cumulative impact, for the work just appeared to go on and on until I could not be sure if these were seven or seven thousand "dreams."

The "Penguin Companion to Classical, Oriental, and African Literature" (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1969) tells me that the Persian poem describes how the world's birds set out in search of the Godhead. Then, after all but 30 die, the survivors realize that they themselves are the Godhead. I have no idea if Wellenkamp thought to express any of this (and, as an independent artist, he has the right to treat source material as he wishes). But I do know that this vague work brought to mind Doris Humphrey's famous and resoundingly clear pronouncement, "All dances are too long."

''Requiem.'' Photo by Fernando Tavares.

"Requiem," also for a large ensemble, was much clearer, in part because whereas a collage is inherently open-ended in form and therefore easily invites choreographic garrulity and incoherence, this dance's accompaniment was a single, reasonably compact, composition: Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Op. 20. Here, the dancers formed a community, continually fleeing from, and seeking ways to defy, oppression. The choreography was propulsive, with fascinatingly enigmatic images, including a repeated gestural motif that made dancers raise their hands before their eyes, as if either reading an ominous document or trying to avoid facing a terrible reality.

The characters gradually appeared to gain courage. Yet the conclusion proved ambiguous, for Orlando Worm's lighting made these people recede into a mist that could have been either the fumes of a death chamber or a protective fog allowing them to elude their foes.

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