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THE RETURN (IL RITORNO)
By Yaron Lifschitz, Quincy Grant, and the Circa Ensemble
Directed by Yaron Lifschitz
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, May 3-7, 2017

Ensemble of ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

It began sensationally, with the seven dancers (three female) lit and grouped like marmoreal sculptures. Mighty Todd Kilby’s free standing backward flip, sudden, solid, with a soft landing, striking the first vivid movement note.  The disjunctive angles, slow steps, knotted muscular limbs, legs and arms stretched or interlocked in the most grotesquely strained positions imaginable seemed deliberately counter to Monteverdi’s baroque music from his 1640 opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, with its languorous strings and sublime vocal renditions by rich-toned Benedict Nelson and mezzo-soprano Kate Howden. With minimal set design (basically a black wall to the rear and naked space) and lighting that accentuated skin, muscle, and a sense of humans caught in mortal coils (sometimes literally by straps), the piece had a cold mood. Bodies bent backwards tensely or collapsed slowly, some literally flung themselves about or were thrown, others flipped, rolled, tumbled, climbed, one was forcibly pinned to the rear wall. But as the acrobatics and gymnastics progressed, with some truly breathtaking sequences (especially the aerial strap work by Bridie Hooper, three-storey human towers, incredible balancing acts on these towers, etc), the 75-minute piece seemed to be endlessly repeating choreography without actually advancing any narrative. Although various components were impressive in themselves, they failed to coalesce into a coherent whole or to describe an arc of development as drama. And a viewer’s attention and focus were frequently blurred, with the singers or musicians compelling attention while the dancers struck their positions or shifted shapes.

Indeed, the lack of narrative cohesion was nearly fatal. For what was the piece truly about? It was clearly not simply about circus acrobatics. Nor was it really an unadulterated baroque entertainment: the mixed score of Monteverdi, Quincy Grant, and assorted, unnamed contemporary music saw to that. Director Lifschitz’s program note advanced a personal view of a tale-within-a-tale, with purposeful physical movement and singing going across styles. Yes, indeed, but what was being communicated was less clear.

Ensemble from ‘The Return’ (photo: Chris Herzfeld)

Advance publicity suggested such things as exile, return to homeland, persecution or oppression, freedom. A real grab-bag of themes. Certainly, the group work, with its vigorous interplay of acrobatics and music, puppet-like manipulated bodies, incredible images of punishment and endurance, fusion and fission could lead to assumptions about contemporary conflicts. The rear wall, for instance, could be read in multiple ways: it could have signified the old Berlin wall or a wall between Israel and Palestine or other walls. But without a defined context, any connotation lacked grounding. So it was with the human figures. Who was the Ulysses, who the Penelope, or her drunken suitors? Or, perhaps, the figures were contemporary representations of refugees in flight or captivity, in concentration camps or in exodus. Nothing was clear; nothing defined. Consequently, there was no real dramatic progression, not even a regression; simply repetition with diminishing returns.

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