Tabula Rasa Dance Theater
New York Live Arts
New York, New York
September 28, 2022
Oedipus Rex (world premiere)
So … you want to create a new, contemporary dance based on Sophocles’s play, “Oedipus Rex”? Great. The last choreographer of note to do this was Martha Graham in Night Journey, in 1947, so another look at it is long overdue. But you want it not just to be an adaptation of a play that’s 2600 years old, give or take, but to be a morality dance of sorts, condemning the evils of incest and sexual abuse. And even more than that, you want it to be a rallying cry for people to see such evils, to seek out and confront them, and to seek justice. Not a problem, you think.
Well, it is. Not so much as a reimagining of the Sophocles play, but as a round hole story into which to hammer an ideological square peg.
But all isn’t lost in Tabula Rasa Dance Theater’s Oedipus Rex, a dance that premiered on September 27 at New York Live Arts for a week-long run. I saw it the evening following its premiere. On the contrary, the experience (it’s as much an experience as a dance) has many qualities to recommend it, not the least of which is the overall dance’s production values, which are off the charts.
I reviewed a Tabula Rasa Dance Theater performance four years ago, while it was still a fledgling company, and noted then that although there were rough edges in the two-dance presentation, it was a company to keep an eye on, with choreography by Founder and Artistic Director Felipe Escalante that I found diffuse but also powerful and often compelling, and that can’t be pigeonholed into one style or another. That’s still the case.
I also observed then that the program was nearly overwhelmed by self-importance, self-indulgence and incoherence; that it evidenced an inability, or unwillingness, to control artistic impulses coupled with the conviction that audiences will “get” what seems obvious to a dance’s creator; and that it displays an overall overbearing choreographic intensity and hyper-activity. Based on this reimagining of “Oedipus Rex,” those comments apply now as well.
Escalante clearly sets forth his motivation for creating this dance in his program note. [The program itself is unusually slick-looking – particularly considering that Tabula Rasa is a small, still relatively new company, and also that the trend, unfortunately, is toward programs that can only be accessible via a QR scanner. The Oedipus Rex program may just provide more evidence of self-absorption and self-indulgence, but it’s still laudable – though adding thumbnail photos of the dancers, or at least the leads, would have made identifying characters less difficult.]
He states therein: “Among the points this version of Sophocles’s tragedy makes is that incest is indefensible. The past actions of Oedipus’s father Laios [sic], who raped his student Chrysipuss, set in motion a series of family disasters. We know that sexual abuse is often a self-perpetuating phenomenon with consequences that can continue indefinitely. How can this cycle of abuse be transformed?” He states further that Tabula Rasa “brings to audiences an opportunity to reflect on this question, as well as on ethics, truth, justice, and social responsibility.”
That’s a lot of self-importance and crusading to digest, much of which has nothing to do with the Sophocles play. That square peg into a round hole. But that’s a discussion for a different day. Here my comments will be limited to the dance as I saw it. [It wouldn’t have had the classic patina, but a more direct connection to Escalante’s position could have been established through some grim parody of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and its prequel, “House of the Dragon,” where incest is a way of life in certain families and engaged in intentionally rather than unknowingly – although Escalante appears to think that the shame of it makes that a distinction without a difference.]
Aside from the intellectual pomposity, what Escalante creates in Oedipus Rex isn’t half bad. In fact, but for not being able to see much of it because the stage is both dark and too-frequently crowded, making it difficult to see the trees for the forest, it’s interesting and often quite clever.
Escalante reimagines “Oedipus Rex” (as well as the Greek myth that spawned it) as occurring in 2020, as the Covid pandemic takes hold, and that it takes place in a fictional nightclub called Thebes Palace. The only set per se is four column-like structures (columns … Greek…get it?) with visibly airy interiors spread in an upstage arc. One of them is much taller than the others; it houses the electronic dj equipment – and the dj. During the course of the piece, certain dancers will make their way up the other, shorter columns and briefly perform within them like go-go dancers.
In the recreated plot, pandemic issues (plague in the play being analogous to Covid in the dance) make the owner, Oedipus, look for information that could help alleviate the club’s financial difficulties arising from the pandemic, but they were maintained by the club’s previous owner, Laios and are now missing. With the club’s employees anxious and depressed, Oedipus’s brother-in-law Creon hires a dj, Tiresias (at times spelled in the program as Teiresias), who was Laios’s friend and who also just happens to be a prophet, to distract them. Oedipus inquires about the financial issues, but Tiresias’s information disturbs him. One things leads to another, neither Oedipus nor Jocasta, his wife, wants to know the truth about what happened (including that her prior husband Laios died in a car crash on the Triboro Bridge – nice touch!), and, well, you know the rest – except that Antigone comes home from boarding school in Switzerland and Oedipus doesn’t recognize her and …, well, “ignoble” things (i.e., sexual assault) happen because the Sphinx made him do it. Knowingly or not, Oedipus wrecks.
I don’t have a problem with any of that – well, except the added incident involving the Sphinx, Oedipus, and Antigone, as I’ll discuss further below.
Reimagining the plot is easy; translating that into a dance isn’t. At the very least, Escalante makes it interesting to watch.
The piece is a visual whirlwind, not only because of the nature of Escalante’s frenetic choreography (though that’s certainly part of it), but as a result of the seemingly tangential stuff that the production throws out to the audience: specifically the lighting and the costumes (the former designed by Christopher Annas-Lee, the latter by Escalante himself).
Mostly it’s the lighting – and I don’t mean overall stage lighting, which is dim and dimmer, making it almost impossible to determine what’s happening in any particular choreographic sequence. Rather, as the piece evolves it’s the augmented and targeted pin-point lighting: hand-held or worn by the dancers like crystal-embedded costumes.
I’ve seen such penetrating, multi-colored, laser, hand or body lighting before, but never to the extent it’s used here, and never with the novelty employed here: the body lighting includes, at one point, multiple thin shafts of light emanating from a band around certain dancers’ heads; and at other points from male dancers’ groins or from female dancers’ chests like illuminated brassieres (there was also targeted lighting emanating from above or behind the stage, consistent with decorative lighting at a nightclub).
I may be wrong, but I concluded early on that the dancers not portraying particular characters, who are most of the seeming cast of thousands on stage (the employees at the club, or customers, or both), represent the equivalent of a Greek Chorus. Another is that these lights are symbolic of the need to “see” – to “explore, discover, and learn” – which is a theme of the dance, but I can’t account for the different colored and laser lighting (many of which penetrate the audience) except as some symbolic code that I couldn’t decipher. It’s a bit self-defeating – attention is often paid to the distracting beams of lights rather than the stage action, but that’s outweighed by the novelty of it all, and even more by the enhancement it provides to the dance. Even the very dim stage illumination, which is appropriate for a nightclub of this nature and which may have been deemed necessary both to emphasize a mood and to enable the projected light beams to appear more pronounced than they might otherwise have been, can be seen as a positive.
A close second in significance are the costumes (like the lighting I’ve described, primarily for the corps). While the costumes vary greatly from sequence to sequence, they’re a startling combination of inventiveness and quality that’s only seen, if at all, in productions by large, established ballet companies.
The piece opens with what I deduce to be a prologue, in which a central person (I believe it was Escalante / Oedipus, but it wasn’t clear to me at that point) enters the area (the club) carrying a large ball-shaped object decorated somewhat like a disco / mirror ball, which would be appropriate in a nightclub venue but which I think was intended to symbolize more than that – like the weight of the world being carried on his shoulders (a mixed mythological metaphor). In hindsight, at least as to the prologue (smaller disco balls are used in various other segments), this scene could also have been a reference to Oedipus being welcomed into Thebes after solving the riddle of the Sphinx and ending a plague that had terrorized that city. But then, the Sphinx has a different function in Escalante’s dance.
After this prologue, it became difficult, at least to me, to figure out what was happening even after having read the program summary. I reconstructed it in my mind after certain scenes toward the end were more clearly expressed. Having done so, it appears that Escalante has roughly followed Sophocles’s play (with allowances for the change in venue and time) except for the incident between Oedipus and his daughter Iphigenia, which is not mentioned in the play (and is not indicated in other sources I checked), although I suppose via artistic license that one may extrapolate it hypothetically from information – mythically-based as it may be – known to have occurred. But it’s an artificial construct nevertheless (after he blinds himself, Oedipus seemingly seduces Iphigenia), and appears to have been inserted only to buttress the themes of perpetuity of shame and the continuing consequences of failure to see that are the motivations for Escalante’s piece.
I’ll chalk up my own failure to see (what was happening in Escalante’s production) to the dim light, my unfamiliarity with the dancers, and the episodic nature of the confrontations that take place prior to the final few scenes that I clearly recognized. Regardless, Escalante’s choreography is distinctive, but difficult to explain. The intensity and hyper-activity is indeed overbearing – the never-ending movement at times appears as visual cacophony – but in a curiously interesting way.
Escalante reserves his best choreography for himself. He seems to express every emotion, even contradictory ones, through his choreography and his acting. And the scene of his clawing his eyes out, though a little too long (like Mercutio’s death), was remarkably and appropriately horrifying. Aside from the probing lighting, that scene was a highlight of the piece.
Also standing out, but in a different way, was Freeda Handelsman’s Iphigenia, here played as an unknowing innocent, but one who was partly complicit in the sexual abuse committed by her father against her – according to the additional plot, neither of them recognized the other (once again, that failure “to see.”) One might expect this character to be played as something of an ingénue, but that wasn’t the case here: Handelsman’s appearance and attitude made me think of Jean Seberg as Joan of Arc.
My recollection of the other characters is less vivid. Graceann Pierce, a guest artist and accomplished ballerina, was here more low-key than I’d anticipated in her role as Jocasta – a product of the choreography assigned to her – although the scene that depicts her growing knowledge of the catastrophe within which she is involved – the truth closing in on her – was very well done. And Jonatan Lujan appeared exceptionally strong as Creon.
My view of Teiresias (portrayed by guest artist Robert Valdez), the Sphinx (Grace Bottom), and the Sphinx’s Shade (Rachel Henkel) was obscured because of surrounding stage action. What was not obscured was another character, Teiresias’s “guide dog,” played by Victor Hugo – an example of AI robotics. I recently saw another robotic dog in The Orchard, a revival of “The Cherry Orchard” (with a cast that included Mikhail Baryshnikov) that included an AI dog that looked exactly like Victor Hugo does here. Perhaps they’re the same non-animal. Regardless, Victor Hugo is a scene-stealer, cute as a … robotic dog. [The program doesn’t share how it got his name, but Victor Hugo was a French writer and politician who championed the downtrodden and condemned injustice – and who wrote “Les Misérables.” I suspect that Escalante gave his AI dog that name in the real Victor Hugo’s honor, and because Escalante feels an ideological kinship with him.]
Last, the omnipresent corps of 13 nightclub employees / customers – the Greek Chorus – are obviously highly skilled dancers, and here did fabulous work. Through Escalante’s choreography and the costumes and lighting materials they wore, they dominated the stage whenever they were on it, making it look like a small-scale Cecil B. DeMille spectacle.
Ultimately, Escalante’s Oedipus Rex is a perplexing piece for the very reason it was created (or recreated) as it was. Despite my concerns about its intellectual legitimacy, however, it’s a visual event and a work of creative intelligence that should be seen when it returns – to see what Escalante wants audiences, and society in general, to … see.