Theatrehaus, Stuttgart (as part of Colours International Dance Festival)
June 30, 2019
A Colours International Dance Festival commission, New York-based Bryan Arias’ latest work, Watch, opens with a quote from German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
The first part seems fairly straightforward. It is a warning to those fighting injustice or whatever, to take care that they do not themselves become perpetrators of injustice, albeit perhaps of a different form. The second is more ambiguous but I see it as a reference to society and human nature. An abyss that’s deep and dark, and where human flaws are revealed. A place that if looked into too intensely, will envelop you, and from where there is no escape.
Arias’ second inspiration is the bleak superhero 1980s comic book series Watchmen published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987. In Watch, he attempts to pull the two together as he considers the struggles of “modern heroes” with their own humanity, also claiming to “confront their ominous superpowers with the worst fears of our times and call the concept of the hero itself into question.” Itself questionable.
Watch is at its best when the body takes centre stage; when Arias concentrates on dance. His background with Nederlands Dans Theater and Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot shines through. Marvellous duets and trios flow with ease.One extended duet for himself and Navarra Novy Williams is rammed with super smooth lifts and rolls, their bodies cascading over and around each other.
As elsewhere, the partnering includes lots of interchange, of smooth pulling, pushing and supporting. It’s sometimes touching, sometimes playful. It’s almost always strong and often incredibly sculptural; beautiful even. Arias, Williams and co-performers Olivia Ancona and Jeffery Duffy all have super control and great presence. They demand to be watched.
That super dance, thematic but semi-abstract, gets all mixed up with attempts to be literal and almost narrative, however. Among a host of thoughts in an interview in the festival programme, Arias comments that the comic book is “just an inspiration.” Yet, at the beginning and end in particular, he feels unable to avoid very direct connections indeed. The collision of approaches is often jarring.
The start is especially literal. In black underwear and masks, the four dancers don yellow sheets as capes (yellow is a predominant colour in the comic book). They mime superhero poses and flying by holding the capes out and flapping them. I suppose it did have a childlike quality. It scored a zero on the subtlety scale though, and was so unconvincing that I wondered if it was supposed to be humorous (presumably not as the rest of the piece isn’t). Other gesture is equally unpersuasive.
Those capes also reappear towards the end when the foursome quite literally stumble around. Presumably it’s a reference to superheroes having human frailties and/or of people stumbling through life, something we all tend to do in one way or another, but again it is unimpressive and from a movement vocabulary perspective sits very uncomfortably with the rest of the piece.
It was all intensely frustrating because the doubts and fears of modern people, their contemporary anxieties, are frequently there in the dance anyway. One very interesting section questions gender and expectations as both men appear in dresses. It’s a shame they don’t fit remotely as well as the formal white shirts and trousers the women get to appear in, but it makes the point. Then there’s the super agitated, tense solo that Arias dances himself towards the end. It’s even better than an earlier slightly jazzy solo to piano for Duffy that’s full of fast footwork.
I came away wanting to get my red pen out. Watch is full of lots of strong ideas but a little editing and an outside eye might go a long way. Time for a dramaturg?