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Bunnymen

The first few minutes of Pontus Lidberg’s “On the Nature of Rabbits,” confounds the viewer with a series of inexplicable images in quick succession. First Lidberg is seated in repose near a small stuffed rabbit, as if a child in deep contemplation of a beloved toy. But soon Hussein Smko breaks into the serenity of the scene, lumbering across the stage. Odd shapes protrude from Smko’s body, giving his figure a monstrous outline. He dislodges a black water balloon from underneath his shirt and offers it to Lidberg. The balloon is leaky. Colleen Thomas arrives with focused determination, regal and authoritative in a grey satin slip dress, and holds out a glass to catch the liquid leaking out in an arced stream. Spotlights come on and off, illuminating each study in small pools of light.

We are at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, but we are also in Lidberg’s dream world.

Performance

Pontus Lidberg: “On the Nature of Rabbits” 

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, March 7, 2024

Words

Candice Thompson

Pontus Lidberg's “On the Nature of Rabbits.” Photograph by Steven Pisano 

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Damiano Artale enters wearing a large furry rabbit head and carries a bunch of blue balloons over to Lidberg, lying prone. He ties them to Lidberg’s wrists and ankles and picks Lidberg up, floating him in arabesque around the stage to the sound of solemn strings. 

Lidberg trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and was artistic director of Dance Dance Theatre in Copenhagen until 2022. But he is also an accomplished filmmaker who excels in imagistic storytelling. “Rabbits,” benefits from Lidberg’s sensitive combination of these skill sets, creating a suspension of disbelief built from both aesthetic beauty of the movement vocabulary and the spectrum of emotions the solos and duets evoke. 

Children’s games are always the most terrifying—take for example, hide-and-seek—and Lidberg leans into these concepts of playacting and shapeshifting. Smko and Lidberg hop and leapfrog around the stage before donning identical, clown-like rabbit masks to what sounds like a demonic carnival. Artale, in the sinister rabbit head, always seems to be lurking around the edges, while Thomas, as a mother or caregiver, is ever interrupting to cart away props that have gone too far or clean up messes. They are presumably boys at play but later, those same hops and hips turn into a sexy, silly dance for the stuffed rabbit and a bizarre routine, mirrored in Jason Carpenter’s projection of the rabbit man. 

Damiano Artale and Pontus Lidberg in “On the Nature of Rabbits” by Lidberg. Photograph by Steven Pisano 

Throughout, the work swaps back and forth between different realms and bends in time. We might be in the present, watching events unfold in real time—as when Lidberg and Artale first kiss—or we might be in a memory or vision where the present action is tinted by the past and the future simultaneously.  Stefan Levin’s original music also takes two tracks: the past plays out to the dramatic dissonance of strings playing a horror film soundtrack while the future, though no less dark or traumatic in terms of trajectory, lures us with a more promising and hopeful guitar song. Carpenter’s animated projections of silhouetted rabbits and storms, along with the conflation of toys and desire, similarly evoke fun and fear in equal measure. 

In the program note, the work is said to be “inspired by true-life events after the fall of the Berlin wall and the peak of the AIDS epidemic.” These reference points find their apotheosis in the sensual partnering of Artale and Lidberg. In their first duet, a ladder is used to magnify and constrict, and of course, demonstrate a sense of a real barrier. As a shirt is peeled off one of their bodies, the ladder passes overhead, almost as an extension of their discarded clothing; when horizontal, the ladder creates tiny walls for the performers to back over or find themselves stuck in; and leaning on a precarious diagonal, supported by Artale, the ladder is a staircase for Lidberg to navigate in order to peek over a boundary. Their maneuvering with this unwieldy prop is expert and seamless, drawing you into a relationship as tender as it is defiant. 

Pontus Lidberg's “On the Nature of Rabbits.” Photograph by Steven Pisano 

When they meet again, they clutch each other in a forceful embrace before pushing apart. The sequence repeats in a dizzying prism, changing directions and over time growing larger to fold in more violent turns and lifts and a few slaps. A sheer curtain drawn across the back is a canvas for projections but when Lidberg lies on the ladder behind it, the drape also helps conjure the image of a patient in a hospital.

Many of the earlier images and props return to haunt and Smko and Thomas make the most of their roles as secondary characters. The black water balloons come back to torment and deform Smko, who is left lumpy and writhing on the floor. One of the balloons springs multiple leaks: in the hands of Artale, it appears to take the form of a golden shower on Lidberg’s head, but when Thomas returns, things become proper once again and the water pours out into a glass.

In the last vignette, Lidberg leans and tilts into Artale’s arms as if no longer in control of his body (though clearly this requires so much more control). Eventually Artale is forced to run a circle around Lidberg to prevent each near fall to the ground. Though this would seem to be Lidberg’s death bed dance, there is more life in him yet. He regains his footing and begins a terse phrase of spinning Artale down to the ground. The move accumulates into a state of mutual exhaustion that bookends the work with a final image that is almost the inverse of the work’s first image. In a statement of innocence lost but love undeterred, Lidberg collapses in the arms of the rabbit man. 

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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