ICA’s Dark “Underland” Rises to the Light

The Stephen Petrino Company presented the unconventional dance piece “Underland” at the Institute of Contemporary Art this weekend. Originally premiering in Sydney, Australia, in 2003, “Underland” incorporated a triptych of projection screens that played videos by Mike Daly and featured a plethora of elegant and innovative costumes designed by Tara Subkoff. This convergence of different arts created an environment where the dancers were vulnerable and yet still conveyed a powerful message about moving from darkness into light.

Petrino himself began the performance by crawling down a ladder onto a dark stage, launching the audience’s journey from the dark depths of the hellish world that the dancers call Underland through a collage of movement and dance. The piece followed no real story but instead based its abstract plot on seven ballads by pop songwriter Nick Cave.

The music was the central focus for all the dancers’ movements. Cave’s evocation of primal urges in “It’s a Wild World” set the opening ensemble scene with a series of dancers launching themselves at one another in rapid movement. This continued for a time and then suddenly shifted into a new motif entirely. This disrupted movement reflected the tumultuous nature of the dancer’s performance world, their Underland, which became apparent as their journey progressed. Petrino understood how to expose the vulnerability of his dancers from the first instant, and he used both isolation and competition in different pieces to set up an ever-changing hierarchy. The performers danced alone at times, but the struggle for power became pronounced when multiple dancers took the stage.

Above the stage sat three looming screens that showed projections and videos intended to complement the story being told. Although at times the video distracted from the dancers’ movement, the images in the video brought out ideas that the dance could not convey. During a dance that focused on creation and destruction, a repeating clip of a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb played on the three screens. The image suddenly flipped upside down and began to play in reverse, and the dancers responded to the change as if they themselves were being manipulated by some unseen force. The video depicting complete destruction shifted to represent a tree growing from the ground, and this completed the shift to natural creation.

To reflect this transition, Subkoff’s costumes were subtle yet effective in providing dancers with an added burst of energy as the performance progressed. The initial gray and black costumes seemed drab and uninspired, yet small hints of color and design could be recognized at various moments. After the dancers entered into a hellish scene complete with an elegant fire video, jealousy seemed to pervade the movement. The three dancers onstage vyed for each other’s attention unsuccessfully, which added to the intensity of the scene. Yet Subkoff allowed this feeling of hopelessness to translate to the costumes, which appeared to take on a life of their own. Frayed sleeves extended to the waist prohibited the dancers from controlling how, at times, their clothing fell. Instead of distracting both audience and performer, this design heightened the level of risk and excitement in the show.

A fluid costume design helped the diverse group of dancers seem like one entity that lived and breathed as a unit. Petrino’s choreography focused in on the individual strengths of each performer, while still adding to the sense that they formed an ensemble. When individual dancers were on stage, they embodied a movement that was then built on by the rest of the dancers who emerged slowly from offstage. As Cave’s music builds, so too did the ensemble of dancers, presenting movement as if it were organic in nature.

The ultimate embodiment of this unity came with the climax of the production, as the dancers emerged from the imposing darkness of the Underland and arrived in the overwhelming light. The ensemble presented their movement in complete unison to the unsubtle Cave song “Death Is Not the End.”

The simple gestures closed the performance on a powerful note. Petrino and his company used the abstract to take the audience on a journey, something that is difficult to do with this form of dance, and that story thrives in the unison of the ensemble.

No individual stood out by the end of the performance. Rather, each dancer appeared to make up part of one unified body onstage, and that one body refused to be confined to the dark depths of Underland.

—Staff writer Joshua R. McTaggart can be reached at jmctaggart@college.harvard.edu

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