ProArteDanza’s The 9th! is a remarkable dance piece because it marries movement to the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with stunning success. At times electrifying and thrilling, passionate and emotional, brooding and broken, the whole cloth of The 9th! is a must see performance.
Creating a dance version of Beethoven’s last symphonic work, and the first in music history to feature a choral component, is a monumental and dangerous task. On one hand, the choreographer is dealing with a very well known and much loved piece of music, so expectations are high. In fact, failure will always lurk in the shadows because, to use the colloquial, when you mess with an icon, you’re asking for trouble. Everyone who knows the symphony, even a little, will have an idea about what Beethoven’s immortal music should look like in movement. That’s why co-choreographers Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek must be regarded as fearless warriors of dance. Both have been profoundly affected by Beethoven’s masterpiece on a deeply personal level, and it is this very visceral connection that has been the driver in the creation of The 9th!
The co-choreographers have approached the symphony from a broad social and political perspective. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (“An die Freude”), for chorus and soloists, which ends the piece, is a stirring call for unity, peoplehood and freedom. Choreographically speaking, Campanella and Glumbek see Beethoven’s first three movements as a musical journey detailing what we have to go through to finally arrive at the fourth movement, and the point at which we can celebrate joy, and sing songs of praise together. We first must pass through trauma, division, oppression, tyranny and sorrow. The creators have even evoked an image of a meeting of the strong and powerful as they decide the fate of the huddled masses.
Beethoven reversed the conventional order of the classical symphony movements by putting the faster scherzo second, and the slow adagio third. This allowed the composer to fill the first two movements with interrupted musical themes and motifs of angst, despair, conflict, and struggle. Short, sharp chords assail the listener like a whiplash. The third movement begins the climb to a more peaceful and restful existence, although humankind still yearns for something better. And finally, the dancers and the audience arrive at the fourth movement and the fulfilment of joy. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.
The choreography is a marvel of strength, agility and fluidity that is a physical tour-de-force. The eight dancers execute great swoops and swaths of movement. The flow and ease between the patterns is astonishing. Nothing jars. It is like the dancers are gliding on ice, quicksilver in their change of shifting positions. They embrace, they pull apart, they entwine, then unravel, they form chains, then rupture them, they lift and set down. The choreographic push me/pull me theme is a prominent feature of the piece. There is, however, usually one dancer who is apart from the mob, watching, observing, longing, until they are pulled back in. When the choreographers elect to exactly follow the beat of the music, the dramatic impact is intense. To be a ProArte dancer, one must be supple, quick, strong, and very musical, and kudos to the extraordinary ensemble assembled to perform this piece – Taylor Bojanowski, Ryan Lee, Sasha Ludavicius, Daniel McArthur, Connor Mitton, Jake Poloz, Kelly Shaw and Kurumi Yoshimoto.
Projections, courtesy of SIRT and OccupiedVR, play important roles in the piece. In the beginning we see multiple images of the dancers, but smaller than life size, moving at just a beat behind the real picture, which give a disjointed feel to the choreography, The second movement is consumed with projections of shafts of light that at first appear like a terrifying urban jungle of skyscrapers, and later, like a jumble of debris. The 9th! is built around the metaphor of chairs. These simple wooden chairs form a barrier between the audience and the dancers when we first come in, and are later incorporated into the dance itself. They also act as impediments between the dancers, particularly in the second and third movements. The chairs form the final projected image, a huge tangle of them like a giant rubbish heap that slowly collapses to finally reveal an empty space representing the open road to freedom. Arun Srinivasan’s atmospheric lighting begins in gloom and lightens as the piece progresses, while Krista Dowson-Spiker’s casual costumes speak of ordinary people of the street, both in keeping with the subject of the work.
If I have one cavil, it is the ending, which, while potent, seems a bit raggedy. The dancers come towards the audience then walk away towards the projected open space between the chairs. It feels like a whimper rather than a bang, and what is needed is a short, sharp image that matches the abrupt ending of the music. I also find the fourth movement to be enigmatic, not as joyous as one would expect, but not despondent either. If the choreographers are being cautious in their worldview, that has to be made clearer.
Nonetheless, from the opening tortured solo of a male dancer writhing up and down, clearly wracked by pain and sorrow, to the fourth movement when the dancers lustily, almost frantically, sing Schiller’s immortal words along with the sound track, Campanella and Glumbek have given us a dance piece that is poignant, moving, and even hopeful. The 9th! is a triumph of choreographic creativity and should be seen across the country.
ProArteDanza, The 9th! (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), choreographed by Roberto Campanella and Robert Glumbek, Fleck Dance Theatre, Nov. 6 to 9, 2019.