The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
November 6, 2018 (opening night)
When I attend a dance performance that relates a story, the only pertinent baggage I bring with me is what I may already know about that story, or what the program tells me. In other words, I attend the performance as most members of the audience would.
I say this because having seen the new production of The Tenant at the Joyce Theater starring James Whiteside, Cassandra Trenary, and Kibrea Carmichael, all I know I know from what I see on stage. I’m aware that the “Dance Play,” as it is called, is based on a highly regarded novel of the same name by Roland Topor, that it was made into a film by Roman Polanski, that the action takes place in Paris, and that it’s considered somewhat of a horror story. The brief program note further advises that the story is “a descent into psychosis as the pathologically alienated Trelkovsky is subsumed into Simone Choule,” the previous tenant who committed suicide.
With this limited knowledge, I have mixed reaction to the piece, which was directed and choreographed by Arthur Pita (with Nina Goldman, the Assistant to the Director and Choreographer), which might have been more positive had the program provided more detail. Suffice it to say that the choreography – essentially a series of duets and solos sandwiched by movement from one place to another within a confined space, is quite good if you appreciate choreography that’s as passionate about passion as it is about technique, and Whiteside, Trenary (both dancers with American Ballet Theatre), and Carmichael execute Pita’s choreography superbly and … passionately. And the score by Frank Moon (played live), punctuated here and there by snippets from three of Beethoven’s symphonies, is an extraordinary compilation of music and sounds that complements and enhances whatever action takes place on stage.
That being said, the staging – while at times brilliantly conceived, is too often needlessly confusing and just plain dumb. And perhaps most troubling, Pita’s conception, which may or may not be derived from the novel, raises questions about the genesis of so-called “aberrant” behavior that, intentionally or not, undermine current thinking.
Pita has a reputation as a highly expressive, and highly theatrical, choreographer who takes considerable artistic risks. I’ve seen three of his pieces (The Ballad of Mack and Ginny, which Pita choreographed for Wendy Whelan and Edward Watson, and which was presented at City Center’s 2016 Fall for Dance, Run Mary Run, performed by Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin at City Center two months after that, and Death Defying Dances, presented by BODYTRAFFIC at the Joyce Theater a few months later), and I found them to be exciting to watch and perhaps even more exciting to ruminate about later after the initial pain that was an intellectual consequence of viewing them and trying to make sense of it all dissipates (equivalent to the relief one feels after recovering from a bad headache). The Tenant does not change that assessment. That his staging and choreography may at times be seen as going over the top is accurate, but none of it, to my mind, is gratuitous, opportunistic, or particularly salacious: it’s appropriate for the story being told. That’s a thinly veiled reference to the fact that there is some nudity in this production, particularly by Whiteside, which certain members of the audience might find offensive. But to me there’s a difference between being shocking and offensive, and while I was appropriately shocked by a few images, in context – and with the exception of one sequence where Whiteside’s back was to the audience – they were not inappropriate.
The Tenant (unless otherwise indicated, such references hereinafter are to the “Dance Play”) begins before it formally begins, as Trenary paces around her apartment or curls up in her bed, obviously troubled about something, while members of the audience gradually take their seats. Once the theater darkens, the pace of her activity increases; she becomes more manic; eventually ingesting alcohol and drugs and attempting to slit her wrists. Suddenly, she decides to go out for the evening, changes into a dress, puts on a scarf, and heads toward the apartment balcony; then just as suddenly changes her mind, rips the scarf off, and, hysterical, runs out onto the balcony, opens the French doors (but of course) to reveal a beautiful Parisian nighttime panorama, climbs to the building roof, wanders around a bit, and, inspired or compelled by the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, falls to her glass-shattering death, and the stage goes black. [The conception of the roof, and the staging relating to it, is highly effective, as is Trenary.]
After the stage brightens (and an upstage sign – presumably to mimic lighting atop one of the outside buildings – announces a new scene: “The New Tenant”), Whiteside enters his new apartment, looks around, unpacks a box and a suitcase, and looks around a bit more. He seems ordinary. Shortly thereafter he removes his pants, gets into bed, and goes to sleep. Or maybe he doesn’t, as a few moments later in stage time he gets back up, puts his pants back on, and dresses for a night on the town. At some point before he goes out the door he discovers a woman’s dress in the closet, which as I read Whiteside’s stage demeanor seems a little strange to him, but he puts it aside, unconcerned, as if he was aware that the apartment’s prior occupant was a woman and must have left it there. He later reacted similarly to finding a box containing women’s slippers.
That description reflects part of the problem. Not knowing the book, we don’t know whether Whiteside’s character, Trelkovsky, slept through the night and the following day (we know it’s night again in Paris because when he opens those French doors it’s dark out – but then again, it’s always dark out when those doors are opened), or whether he got out of bed because he was restless and couldn’t sleep, though there was no indication of restlessness. [In hindsight, it’s possible that the box containing women’s slippers was one he brought to the apartment when he first entered, and from my vantage point missed it – but even if it was, that doesn’t change my overall assessment.]
Anyway (and my ensuing description condenses the stage action), after returning from some wild, noisy party (we know that from the sound of a wild, noisy party emanating through the theater’s speakers) and going out again, preceded by removing his pants, going to bed, getting up from the bed, and then putting the pants back on), the apartment is invaded by a unitard-clad demonish creature who springs from nowhere. At first I thought it was Trenary, but this person was far taller. I even thought at one point that it might have been Whiteside, but he couldn’t possibly look that svelte in a unitard. Or could he? She / it (not a character identified in the program) stalks the apartment like some evil spirit monster or personified lightning bolt or nightmarish apparition of Christmas yet to come (sorry, it’s beginning to feel a lot like that time of year). She wrecks the place, plays with the knife that Simone threatened to cut herself with, and disappears. Who, or what, is this thing? Is she a spirit that haunts the apartment, dooming anyone who lives there? A force unleashed by Choule’s suicide? A figment of Trelkovsky’s imagination even though he’s not there to imagine her? [In hindsight once again, I suspect this demon was a visualization of Trelkovsky’s released inner demon, with the further possibility that this vision wasn’t just a horrific vision, but represented some predilection that Trelkovsky may have had toward being a woman, but at that point in time we don’t know that Trelkovsky even had an inner demon – he seemed simply a mild-mannered young man who happened to like wild parties. Nothing unusual there.]
Later, after returning from yet another wild party with a wild young woman, in tow (after getting out of and into his pants a few more times), he subsequently has wild sex (after…well, you get the idea), presumably with the character identified as “Stella” in the program, played by Carmichael. It seems clear to me that Stella was the same person as the one who danced the role of that frightening monster – Carmichael appears the appropriate size and character, and the “wildness” displayed by the spirit matches Stella’s approach to lovemaking. But could Trelkovsky have imagined Stella as that demon before he seemingly first met her? Or, notwithstanding that they’re performed by the same dancer, are they intended to represent two different “forces.” We don’t know.
As the piece progresses during the course of these and other scenes, Trelkovsky sees the trance-like Simone Choule, before him, even dances with her, but also seems to move and behave in ways that echo what Simone did before she committed suicide. Clearly, maybe, he’s being possessed by her. Or just as clearly, maybe, he’s acquiring her character and appearance as his own – “possession” having nothing to do with it. After this gradual slide into madness (or more visualized madness) and after hearing to the same musical exclamation points from Beethoven’s 9th that appeared to impel Choule to her death, he climbs out on the roof and leaps off, committing suicide.
Except he’s back on stage afterward, dazed, brutally wounded, and subsequently is seen bandaged in black, with one eye open, matching an image that inexplicably had been displayed earlier in the piece of Choule bandaged and bedridden after he’d already moved into the apartment. Then, once more to the strains of Beethoven’s 9th, Trelkovsky climbs onto the roof and kills himself. Again.
I ascertained after the performance that in the novel, Trelkovsky visits Choule in the hospital, where she’s bandaged as described (and died shortly thereafter) before he moved into the apartment, so the image of Choule that Trelkovsky sees on the bed must, in the Dance Play, be a flashback, and his twice-told suicide must be some reflection of Choule jumping off the roof, surviving, but dying later. Admittedly it might have been difficult to present all that (and more) with some coherence, but what Pita chose to do by condensing the story and changing the narrative order and presenting characters without explanation (which might have been readily explained in a program note) makes it way too confusing.
If one eliminates all the stuff that makes no sense, or is just annoying and silly (like the pants coming off and on repeatedly), the piece is exactly as billed – a study in developing psychosis triggered by … well, either his own instability to begin with, his visions of Choule, his possession by Choule, his “becoming” Choule, or his reaction to living in a haunted apartment. Pick one or them all – in The Tenant, any possibility is justifiable. But the fact that I’ve spent so much time discussing what Pita and his dancers presented indicates, ultimately, how curiously fascinating this horror story told through dance is, and that many of its images are enduring – which is much more than I can say about more “successful” story-dances.
However, the greater problem I have with The Tenant is the piece’s manifestation of Trelkovsky’s descent into madness. Either as a result of his ingrained mental illness, or of circumstances outside his control, he transforms himself into Choule – physically. He becomes a woman – and maybe had that propensity all along (though that’s hardly clear). So is the message here that a man who dresses like a woman or “becomes” a woman does so as a result of mental illness (the program note described him as “pathologically” alienated) or of outside forces that compel him to do what he does? Does it matter? And is the further message that the transformation into a woman (including but beyond wearing woman’s clothing) is the real horror story, or at the very least a component of it? Somehow I don’t think that that’s the takeaway that any of the artists involved in the piece intended to provide, but it’s there.
And if dressing as a woman, or thinking himself to be a woman, had been “normal” for Trelkovsky prior to the “possession” by Choule (or her influence), why was there no clear evidence of it? Why doesn’t he put on a dress or a woman’s wig to go out on the town? All this may be perfectly explicable to the artistic team, but to me, rather than being whoever you believe you are, what The Tenant describes is clear cause and effect, with the cause being his preexisting condition or the acquired madness, and the effect being that dressing like a woman and/or a male’s thinking himself to be a woman is perceived as abnormal behavior (separate and apart from committing suicide). Is Whiteside really comfortable with this implication?
So not only is the staging of The Tenant confusing, the point is as well. And I recognize that in his novel Topor may have been commenting on something about Parisian society or human nature that might make this explicable, but this Dance Play doesn’t do it.
Aside from those observations, however, The Tenant is worth seeing for Pita’s choreography and the performances. Carmichael is a dramatic, powerful dancer (her dance background is extensive) who made an indelible first impression (she looks like a cross between a tall version of Thandie Newton as she appeared in Mission Impossible II and Grace Jones, a James Bond villain in A View to a Kill – youthfully slight and engaging but scary and a little crazy. Her role – both components of it – is explosive, and she nailed it. Trenary’s dancing talent is well known and apparent here – somehow she makes her manic depression and suicide both believable and somehow graceful. And the scene as she struggles with her demons on the roof before jumping off is beautifully (if that’s the appropriate word) and brilliantly (that is the right word) executed. Whiteside, the Dance Play’s centerpiece (and probably it’s raison d’etre), does a superb job making Trelkovsky’s mad descent into cross-dressing and thinking himself a woman, and then committing suicide – twice – credible (although he could use some French lessons: his few French exclamations were the only part of his performance that seemed artificial). It’s a role seemingly made for him.
So by all means see The Tenant (don’t bring the kids or the squeamish). But maybe read the book, or a good summary of it, in advance. And perhaps keep in mind that notwithstanding that the excerpts from Beethoven’s 9th either trigger or reflect the suicidal impulses of Choule and Trelkovsky (and perhaps the apartment’s next tenants), Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is commonly referred to as “Ode to Joy.”