What’s more excruciating: being a BalletLab dancer or watching a BalletLab performance? Probably being a dancer, as it is he who repeatedly throws his body, mind and spirit into Artistic Director Phillip Adams’ lurid and menacing works.
The Australian company, a favorite of curators at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, returned once again to the college campus for the weekend-long Filament festival of theater, sound, dance, video and exhibitions. Like previous visits, BalletLab gave the audience a horror show going by the name of “Miracle.” Adams’ hour-long abuse, which was in part created at RPI, thrusts its witnesses into a world where religious fanaticism rules. In “Miracle,” blind conformity and mindless ritual creates a torture chamber that turns humans into zombies and audiences into squeamish voyeurs.
This disturbing piece, which is eerily relevant, was brutal to endure. The quartet who performs it begins by screaming and screeching, writhing and convulsing. Dressed in muted color robes — like disciples of Jesus — they look to be cast about by a wind or a wall of water. They cling to each other as this roar of sound shakes the room. (It’s deplorable that the audience was not offered earplugs. The decibels were dangerously high.)
As they scream, one falls to the ground, spastic. Others pile on him trying to settle him, as if they were exorcizing evil spirits. The screams persist as they lift a woman who kicks and punches the air. She is pressed against a back wall. They let her free only to then jerk and pull, jerk and pull, jerk and pull yet another victim. The repetitiveness of the violence begs an ending. Unfortunately, BalletLab is just getting started.
In the next section, the piece fast-forwards to the hippie generation. (The clue is in the clothes — cut-off jeans and halters.) The dancers clop around in wooden shoes, which bogs down their movement. Yet it is their minds that are really in a quagmire. That’s obvious as they mouth garble into bullhorns, which seem to command the cult to perform some ceremonial act. They grab rolled-up clothes, toss them back and forth and again scream and shake — proving the inanity of the exercise.
Successive sections include two stomping about and rolling their heads for an extended period, while the other two, topless with just panties on, lie on the floor swinging electric cords over their heads. They also hyperventilate into harmonicas and, in the end, appear to have discovered nirvana.
“Miracle” succeeds in that it clearly depicts the corrupt stranglehold religion can have on its radical followers. Yet in so doing, it makes the audience feel flustered, frustrated and harassed. Certainly, one can admire Adams for his ability to elicit all of these emotions. Unfortunately, they are all unsettling and he does not give pause for anything more. The audience can brace for “Miracle.” But I simply prayed for one — mainly a quick end.