Few narratives are as compelling as the love triangle. Throw in a baby bump and you’ve struck tabloid fodder gold. Such was the juicy premise of “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, performed by her company Rosas at the Baryshnikov Arts Center January 30 to February 3. It is danced to Arnold Shönberg’s 1899 string sextet of the same title, which in turn takes its name and inspiration from an 1896 poem by the German Symbolist Richard Dehmel. In the poem a woman in a moonlit grove confesses to the man she loves that she is pregnant with another man’s child. De Keersmaeker’s take is fleshy and flinging, but this modern dance piece resists the potential melodrama of its plot.
It opened with a woman (Cynthia Loemij) and a man (Igor Shyshko) in a brief duet danced in silence. Her first move was to jump backwards into his arms and rest her arched neck onto his shoulder—as if this encounter was not the result of a conscious choice but rather submission to a primal urge. At one point she hung for a very long time in his hands, suspended by her shoulders, hovering like a rag doll over the floor. After this coupling she reentered with another man (Boštjan Antončič) and repeated the first pas de deux nearly verbatim. But the hanging motif was mitigated, instead she sat on the floor as her new beau cupped her shoulders in a comforting way. During the reiteration of the passage the first man shadowed the movements of his replacement in the background. Then he was gone forever.
Loemij and Antončič then moved upstage to a dark corner. (The lighting design, by Luc Schaltin and De Keersmaeker, was bleak throughout.) She stood behind him and he faced the back wall. She hovered, unable to communicate with him. Still in silence she danced a twisty, reeling solo in which she frequently planted herself in a huge squat and caressed the floor with the back of her hand. The weeping strings of the score commenced. It was clear that Loemij wanted to escape from telling him the truth of her condition but couldn’t summon the courage. Much of her choreography was pitched back at an angle as she resisted her fate. I particularly liked when she scooted along the floor with splayed legs and then reversed it. It was like she was fast-forwarding through childbirth and then rewinding back to this blameless moment.
She never did tap her lover on the shoulder to confess. He eventually noticed her distress and joined her. He then danced his own fitful solo. One of his theme steps was a fast rocking of his arms, as if cradling an imaginary infant, followed by a dive to the floor. Would he take the plunge with her? In the dark rumbling climax of Schönberg’s score they stood still in separate corners. Eventually, as the strings thawed, they reunited—though tentatively at first. They had a series of almost embraces, and then she began to jump at him facing forward, broadcasting her commitment this time around.
Schönberg’s music makes a clear shift from rocky to hopeful in its finale, and De Keersmaeker’s choreography followed suit. Antončič spun Loemij in an embrace as her feet flew up, evoking the classic image of blissful lovers meeting in a flowery meadow. They spooned on the ground and he covered her with his suit jacket. In the piece’s most tender moment she placed his head on her stomach and he lifted her and rocked her like a baby. At the very end of the piece she danced a brief solo and stood still as a statue at the front of the stage before exiting. He tarried for one more solo and then stood likewise in the spot she vacated as the lights went out.
It was hard to read Antončič’s expression in that final moment, and throughout the piece the dancers’ faces were stoic. All emotion was channeled through their flexing spines and collapses to the ground. This tempered the lewdness of the story, but it also impeded my emotional involvement. Coming from the Balanchine tradition that prizes icy aloofness over dramatics, I was relieved that they were not overemoting. Yet I longed for more chemistry between them. I wanted them to beam in reconciliatory understanding as they spun around in embrace, as Schönberg’s gorgeous late-Romantic score seems to.
The entire piece was quite beautiful; the dancers were wonderful movers and the steps were interesting. Yet something was missing. I wonder if it was all too literal? The men were even dressed in identical suits but the shadowy first man was in gray, the accepting partner in true blue. Perhaps the source material is to blame. “Verklärte Nacht” is a spare poem—just 36 lines arranged in 5 stanzas—and it too is surprisingly devoid of conflict. The woman’s sexual transgression appears to have occurred before she met her true love, and immediately upon confessing her pregnancy her new partner reassures her: “Let the child you have conceived / Be no trouble to your soul. / How brilliantly the universe shines!” The real struggle seems to be the woman’s internal guilt for having engaged in premarital sex: “I walk in sin beside you. / I have deeply sinned against myself.”
This simply may not be such a compelling problem to modern eyes. The costumes, attributed to Rosas and Rudy Sabounghi, were fairly neutral and did not pin the piece to an earlier century. The men were in timeless suits. Loemij’s boxy, floral pink frock could have belonged to a more prudish era, but it wouldn’t be out of place in today’s hipster Brooklyn à la Rachel Comey. Perhaps the poem’s narrative itself is unrealistic to me. Would the man so quickly and eagerly agree to raising her child as his own? I would think that his reaction might merit at least as much soul-searching as her fear of confession.
De Keersmaeker’s “Verklärte Nacht” is a perfect distillation of its literary antecedent, but I wanted one more layer—some commentary on the tale. I wanted to know what Antončič was feeling at the end. Could everything really be resolved that easily? Like a tabloid reader, I wanted more.