Review: A Gentle Nightmare (Paging Dr. Freud)

Review: A Gentle Nightmare (Paging Dr. Freud)

As a title for a dance, “On the Nature of Rabbits” is unusual. So is the presence of a dancer wearing an oversized rabbit head. That might be comic or creepy. In this work, by the Swedish choreographer Pontus Lidberg, rabbits are part of a nightmare, and an awfully Freudian one. The rabbit is comfort, desire and death, as well as a psychological block that undermines adult relationships.

The hourlong work, which had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater on Wednesday, begins with Lidberg on the floor with a toy bunny, a Rosebud rabbit. This childhood scene is one of several points in the life of Lidberg’s character that the dance depicts, not always in chronological order. There’s also: an adult love affair (with the dancer Damiano Artale) and an encounter with another man (played by Hussein Smko) who hops as a rabbit does and dies.

That death is the work’s most theatrically potent moment. First, Smko starts checking his ankles and shoulders, looking for sores. Later, he lies down and the man in the rabbit head, from whom he has taken a carrot, blows up black balloons and stuffs them in Smko’s clothing so they look like bulging tumors. Soon, the rabbit man leads Smko offstage. This is a dance haunted by AIDS.

The moment is especially poignant since earlier in the work, balloons are a sign of lift and escape. The rabbit man attaches blue balloons to the sleeping body of Lidberg as a child, just before picking him up and cradling him.

As a choreographer, Lidberg is poking at the way desire is entangled with parts of the psyche formed in childhood. His character has some mommy issues. Colleen Thomas plays a mother figure who is always spoiling the fun, pulling Lidberg away. In one duet, Artale holds a balloon leaking water at his breast so Lidberg can suckle, and then moves the balloon below his waist to simulate urinating on Lidberg. Who comes in to clean up the mess? Mom, of course.

In another scene, Lidberg dances in front of the toy bunny like a teenager in his bedroom. Here, the music (by Stefan Levin, with interpolations of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 for the dramatic parts) acquires a backbeat, and Lidberg pulls out hip-hop moves and pelvic thrusts that I assume are intentionally awkward. He jerks the bunny to his hips while thrusting.

Video animation and projections by Jason Carpenter are for the most part superfluous, adding a storm here, rabbit silhouettes there. But before Smko finds his sores, he does a mirroring dance with a rabbit silhouette. After he dies, a large animated rabbit tears apart a little one. There goes childhood.

While this might all be surreally intense or ridiculous, it is instead gentle. Gentleness is the forte of Lidberg’s choreography. The loveliest sections are the tumbling love duets between Lidberg and Artale. In the earliest one, a ladder comes between them and also acts as a frame and lever for romance. In the middle duet, Lidberg resists intimacy, pushing Artale away. He does that in the final one, too, repeatedly embracing Artale and throwing him to the ground, until he lets Artale take his weight and cradle him like the rabbit.

But gentleness is also the choreography’s limitation. In this case, that placid physicality and sensibility, while imparting a dreamlike flow, soften the psychological horror. Rather than running like a rabbit, the dance mopes.

Pontus Lidberg

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan;

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