[pending receipt of photographs from MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps)]

Scottish Ballet
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 10, 2020
This is My Body… Program: Sibilo, MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps)

Jerry Hochman

I looked forward to Scottish Ballet’s appearance at The Joyce since it’s scheduling was announced. From what I’d seen online, this is a fine company.

I won’t judge a company by one program. And much of Scottish Ballet’s scheduled week-long engagement was cancelled because of the Coronavirus situation, so I feel as if I’m rubbing salt into an open wound. But the program under the umbrella title “This is My Body…” that Scottish Ballet brought with it to New York was one of the least impressive that I can remember. Not because of the dancers, who were doing what the choreography told them to do and doing it well, but because the two dances were either mediocre or repulsive.

I’ll deal with the mediocre first.

Resident Choreographer Sophie Laplane may have terrific choreographic ability, but that’s not evident in Sibilo, the program’s opening dance. It’s not a bad piece, but it’s relatively elementary, its well-worn subject is spread too thin, and the accompanying music by Alex Menzies (aka Alex Smoke) is borderline annoying.

Laplane’s theme here is a take on “getting to know you” at the inception of a relationship. The difference between Sibilo and other similarly-themed dances is that Sibilo is more interested in the physical aspect of it than the emotional. That’s been done before too (the one that comes immediately to mind are certain of the initial physical interactions described in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo and Juliet), but here it’s accomplished through somewhat obvious and juvenile innuendo. Essentially, the cast of four women and four men pair up and play games with each other with respect to revealing their bodies. It comes across as flashing and teasing.

Scottish Ballet dancers
in Sophie Laplane’s “Sibilo”
Photo by Jane Hobson

There’s a limited amount of choreographic inventiveness here, but it’s overwhelmed by the mundane. All I can recall of this dance, absent being refreshed by the notes I took, are images of the women (and I believe the men as well) at various points covering their breasts with their hands and then briefly opening their arms outward and exposing themselves to their partners, and then covering themselves again. But nothing is really exposed: the men are bare-chested at that point, so it’s no big deal, and the women wear an outer dress that covers an inner covering: opening the costume’s outer “lapel” area reveals nothing (the costumes for each gender are identical). And even if there had been nudity, there still would have been nothing prurient about it. It’s peek-a-boo look-but-don’t-touch, and it’s robotic.

There’s more to the dance than just those gestures, but they don’t add up to much. There are some lovely-looking moments, but they’re takes on what’s been done before. For example, I saw images of men lifting and swinging their female partners that triggered memories of parts of the pas de deux from Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc. By far the most interesting part of the dance is a pas de deux of sorts between a woman and a man (the dancers are not specifically identified), in which she removes the man’s outer jacket and dances what might have been a knockout pas de trois (the woman, the man, and the jacket) had it not been executed without the least bit of emotional involvement – which I assume is what the choreographer wanted, since most everything else in the dance can be similarly described. And maybe that’s Laplane’s point: that relationships begin with a focus on the physical, and at that stage are somewhat by the numbers. That might be an accurate observation, but it doesn’t make for a dance that encourages the audience to be anything more than voyeurs at a high school prom. And the score (or additions to it) is larded with whistling sounds. Not the type of whistling that may reflect sexual interest or arousal, but a kind of melodic whistling that’s purposeless rather than, say, a siren’s call to hormonal urges.

Scottish Ballet dancers
in Sophie Laplane’s “Sibilo”
Photo by Jane Hobson

The word “sibilo” has several meanings from the Latin and/or Italian. One is “whistle,” which would be appropriate to reflect the score, and maybe the superficiality of the ballet’s interactions. But it’s primary meaning in the sources I checked is “hiss.” To describe or define Sibilo as such would be unnecessarily harsh in this context: Sibilo isn’t bad at all; it’s just unmemorable.

It may be that this dance was included in this program to conform to the program’s titular subject. That’s unfortunate, particularly in light of the dance that followed, which is not so much unmemorable as it is repugnant.

Preljocaj’s MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That is, it’s not saying what it says it’s saying, it’s saying something that’s mostly the opposite, and far more controversial. There’s no doubt in my mind that the audience has been had. And although I concede that there are vivid images as well as ideas here – and to my knowledge ones not frequently explored in dance, these images and ideas are overwhelmed by self-indulgency and a “score” that could summon the dead. And the entire piece could have said what the choreographer wanted to say in half the time: what’s there is primarily intentionally repetitious filler.

Scottish Ballet dancers
in Sophie Laplane’s “Sibilo”
Photo by Jane Hobson

According to the program note, MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) is “a hymn to the male body, a meeting of the spiritual and the carnal, a glorification of masculinity and a condemnation of force. Created for twelve male dancers, this powerfully sensual and passionate work reimagines The Last Supper according to the Gospel of St. Mark, Chapter 14, verse 22, as Christ breaks bread and announces to his disciples: ‘Take it, this is my body’. Through ritual washing, tender affection, and images of cruelty, MC 14/22 evokes Biblical scenes in a visceral, often brutal work, and explores the idea of surrendering the body so that it can be recreated anew.” Nonsense. And I can’t believe that Preljocaj sanctioned this description, or intended what it says.

I’ll grant a few things: MC 14/22 does contain a scene (actually portions of a scene) involving “ritual washing” and “tender affection” between one man and another, and it does contain “images of cruelty.” Lots of them. And it’s often brutal. Can’t take issue with that either. But that’s as far as it goes. As I see it, MC 14/22 describes the consequences of religious orthodoxy, which necessarily subjugates that freedom of expression that makes humans human. I’m not saying that this is true; only that it appears unmistakable that that’s what Preljocaj is saying. [Parenthetically, I acknowledge that there may be references in this dance to religious events, dogma, or values with which I’m not familiar – though that’s never been a problem where the choreography is sufficiently clear or clearly explained in a note.]

The dance begins with an undeniably marvelous tableau: downstage right (the left side of the stage), one man, dressed in white underpants, is washing the body of another similarly costumed. The process is certainly ritualistic, and it’s also sensual (albeit not in the least erotic). To me, it clearly represents a combination of ritual cleansing and affection / care of one man for another. Opposite that, downstage left, is a single bearded man in the midst of a different ritual – cutting pieces of tape and applying the tape to what appeared to be a block of wood that most of the time rested on the stage floor. We see that man and the tape later; the cleanser and the cleansed, at least this image of them, disappear. Upstage center is a nifty construction of three-tiered cubicles made of connected metal-like poles, each tier divided into separate sleeping quarters for nine men – clad in white underpants. Bunk beds of sorts.

To make a very long and tedious dance story a bit shorter, this opening scene seamlessly and gradually shifts: the men in the bunk beds begin to stir, the men downstage depart (at least the ones involved in the cleansing ritual do; I’m not certain that the man who practiced with the tape actually left the stage), and the volume of the hideous electronic score is amplified. The men in the bunk beds gradually stir and then descend to the stage floor and rearrange the bunk bed skeleton into separate tables spread horizontally, three parallel to another three, with two men stationed at each table. Faster than you can say “heresy” the standing group of men begin slamming their “partners” over, under, and around the tables violently, logically to the point of broken ribs or limbs – except these dancers, I assume, know how to absorb the blows. This continues ad nauseum.

Whether from weariness or because they received some admonition to do so from somewhere, the slamming gradually slows. Then it would resume. Then it would slow again, each time, as I recall, with additional men refraining from slamming each other – except some or all of them return to the violence. The inclination toward violence is difficult to suppress.

And then a thematic corner is turned. I’m not sure of the order, but the tables are again rearranged so that they’re in a left to right horizontal line amounting to a single table (akin, perhaps, to the table visualized in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”). One man begins to sing something in a soft, almost angelic voice – a song; a hymn; it’s not clear – and the man with the beard (there is only one “man with the beard” among the twelve man cast), abetted by a couple of others, tries to stifle him by beating him, stuffing his fingers in the singer’s mouth, and more examples of cruelty than I care to describe. But the singer keeps singing. At some point, the bearded man decides that he can live with the man singing (with the implicit understanding that the singing must be consistent with the bearded man’s message), and the singer is released. One man thereafter appears upstage center, moving his body (fighting; dancing; just moving – I couldn’t tell). The bearded man (together with some acolytes) approaches and tries to stop the “moving man’s” motion with duct tape that he cuts from roll – identical to the tape we saw him cutting and applying to a block of wood at the dance’s genesis. He tapes up the moving man’s arms; the moving man moves his legs. He tapes up the moving man’s legs, the moving man moves his feet. He tapes up the moving man’s body, and the moving man still manages to move. The moving man, reduced to moving his toes, is then summarily carted offstage as if he were a rejected package to be discarded: the effort to stop people from expressions of violence evolved into stifling freedom of expression.

A mid-stage curtain then opens to reveal all the twelve men on stage having exchanged their white underpants for black (although this may have happened earlier in the dance; I’m not certain), with several either moving to or already stationed upstage right, and one man positioned atop a high pedestal (constructed, as I recall, by parts of the bunk bed / table arrangement). This man walks toward the stage right end of this platform, and dives off (as if diving off a cliff) – into the arms of the men stationed beneath. He then joins that group, and another of these men breaks off from the group, climbs up the pedestal, walks toward the stage right end, and dives off, into the arms of the men waiting below. Then another man … you get the idea. It continues this way for eons. I’m not certain, but to my recollection the man with the beard was watching, or directing. Then the house curtain comes down.

Notwithstanding the dance’s description, to me it’s unmistakable that Preljocaj’s dance is an extended diatribe in which the religion depicted violates one of its central principles and instead focuses on demanding obedience and orthodoxy: music is allowed only to the extent it can be controlled and channeled; individual freedom of expression in other respects is eliminated. Those who follow the prescribed tenets are reduced to being robotic lemmings (they may have represented a body “surrendering” so it could be “recreated anew,” but what’s surrendered and recreated is robotic discipline). And in the process of insuring conformity and obedience, this religion has abandoned one of the alternatives presented when the dance began: caring for the individual human being.

There is no indication who the man with the beard represents. There were twelve dancers in the cast. So either all twelve were disciples (and maybe one of them Judas), or one did double-duty as a disciple and a Jesus figure. If Jesus was not represented, then the comments in the program note make no sense – aside from inaccurately representing the dance. But even if the bearded man was supposed to represent Judas, then Preljocaj appears to be attributing the acts he describes onstage to Judas, which also makes little sense unless he’s arguing that this religion’s failure is the product of Judas’s influence (as in: Judas, pictured at the dance’s beginning, is metaphorically anticipating the consequences of his betrayal, and then co-opts Jesus’s teachings) which again isn’t what’s indicated in the program note. Either way, MC 14/22 is neither a “hymn to the male body” (unless one makes assumptions that I’m not prepared here to explain), nor is it a celebration of the triumph of humane religious values: it’s a condemnation of orthodoxy.

Scottish Ballet dancers
in Sophie Laplane’s “Sibilo”
Photo by Jane Hobson

There’s no question that Preljocaj is a highly original choreographer, with the ability to create images that are vivid and enduring and that make principled visual statements. He did that with Spectral Evidence, for New York City Ballet, and he’s done that again with MC 14/22. It’s a skillfully crafted piece of work. And certainly other artists have made arguments similar to those Preljocaj makes here in different mediums, and although many might find the references here vulgar and heretical, I don’t doubt that to some extent Preljocaj may here be preaching to the choir. My gripe is two-fold: that the dance’s description is intentionally deceiving, and that Preljocaj could have said what he wanted to say without the numbing repetition of images.

My critical hat goes off to the dancers who had to endure this self-indulgency. Each executed brilliantly.

As it turns out, the two dances on this program do have some things in common, and it’s not a celebration of the male or female body: first, each relegates its audience to being voyeurs; more importantly, each describes a manner of controlling temptation that, arguably, the body represents one by avoidance, the other by suppression. In both respects, it’s not pleasant as the opening night audience appeared to recognize. Opening night audiences are often filled with people affiliated with who have some affinity for the company, and cheer wildly regardless of the merits of what was presented. Here, for each dance, the curtain opened, there was applause, the curtain came down, and that was it.

I hope Scottish Ballet returns, even with a program that’s as provocative as this one. But “This is My Body…” is a program best forgotten.