It seemed to have it all: 9 dancers, 5 guitars, 5 amps

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It seemed to have it all: 9 dancers, 5 guitars, 5 amps
Jobel Medina and François Malbranque with dancers in the background performing in “takemehome” by Dimitri Chamblas at NYU Skirball Theater in New York, Nov. 16, 2023. Chamblas takes a look at isolation in the collaboration with the musician Kim Gordon. (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- The dance started — or seemed to start — with people walking onto the stage before finding a spot and lying down. The bright, blisteringly white lights made the view murky, yet through the haze random bodies were stretched out on backs and sides, utterly limp. Above them was a suspended zeppelin: Imagine a giant balloon of a baked potato floating over 34th Street in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But, really, the scene was somber. Eventually, others — dancers, recognizable by their bare feet — helped those on the floor, who turned out to be volunteers from the audience, rise to cross the stage. And some time later, they escorted them off the stage and back to their seats. In “takemehome,” by French choreographer Dimitri Chamblas in collaboration with musician Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, there is always a sense that something important is about to happen.

The problem with this presentation by Dance Reflections — the festival produced by Van Cleef & Arpels — and NYU Skirball, where it was performed on Friday evening, is that it stays firmly planted in a nebulous, largely unenergetic middle ground.

What seems moody soon becomes drearily drawn out in this dance, of which the premise is promising: nine dancers, five electric guitars and five amplifiers — and Kim Gordon! (She and Chamblas have worked together since 2018.) I was excited for some noise, but earplugs weren’t needed for “takemehome,” which was dominated by prolonged silence or near silence; at times, Gordon’s voice, vocalizing sounds or a whispering, anguished “take me home,” cut through the air with an imploring urgency.

As the dancers shifted from states of action to stillness, they continually retreated to winding, improvisatory-seeming solos, which pegged them as loners or, as a program note compared them to, shadows: “The forgotten ones of the great metropolises: prisoners, elders, unproductive ghosts, the neglected, the indecisive.”

Certainly Chamblas — who created a contemporary dance program at a maximum-security prison in California — has an understanding of the despair and sorrow that isolation brings. Even some of the work’s inertia makes sense. The ghosts of “takemehome” are embodied by his dancers, dressed in streetwear separates, as they dip in and out of manic states, sometimes clawing at the air as their audible breath echoes across the gloomy stage.

When the dancers in “takemehome” do get going, their energetic shifts lead to quick sprints, rapid fire jumps, far-flung limbs, but there is also much slow motion, in which bodies lean back and drag forward as if suspended by strings. Lately it seems that European contemporary dance, at least from France, has a thing for slow motion. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a subconscious way of willing those in the world to take a much-needed pause. Choreographically, however, it’s getting stale.

With lighting by Yves Godin in collaboration with Virginie Mira, the tone of the stage is largely cool as the zeppelin glows in white and pale blues. When five of the performers, some standing on the amps, pick up guitars and start to strum — they do so vigorously, their arms moving up and down to create a sheet of sound — the zeppelin turns an angry red. For a moment, the stage, full of crimson shadows, heats up.

But soon the scene ends and, once again, time, in an airless way, drags on; when the zeppelin deflates it’s unintentionally comical. Dancers unhook it and remove it from the stage, paving the way for the final moment when powerful dancer Salia Sanou is left alone, whipping his arms and hurling his agile body into the air. Leaning back, he freezes his fingertips reaching for something unseen, out of reach. The lights dim. He fades into the darkness.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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