Orpheus et Eurydice
Compagnie Marie Chouinard
Memorial Hall, UNC Campus
March 25

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice ranks highly among the most frustratingly inevitable Greek myths. When Eurydice is killed by the bite of an asp, Orpheus ventures into the underworld to save her. His lyrics on the lyre are so beautiful that he charms Hades and Persephone, the regents of the dead, and Hades offers him the chance to lead his beloved out of the underworld. The catch is that he must not look back at Eurydice, lest she be lost forever. During the long trek out of Hades, Orpheus’ anxiety mounts; he becomes certain that it’s a cruel trick. This is the point where the reader beseeches Orpheus, “Don’t look!” But, just as Pandora always opens her box, he always does.

While beauty is a crucial element of the story, it’s a scarce commodity in the renowned French-Canadian choreographer Marie Chouinard’s aggressively ugly and profane Orpheus et Eurydice. Instead, the emotional center of the dance seems to be Orpheus’ mounting anxiety as he walks through the underworld, and the madness of the entire enterprise. That Orpheus looks back gives the story its tragic wallop, but what if he didn’t? Would all be well? Or would returning from the dead to live with a dead woman impose a different kind of psychological hell upon the doomed lovers? The dance also takes up this aura of fated calamity, expressed through interlocking loops of spastic yet mechanistic routines.

Chouinard revels in the grotesque, the antic, the insane: This is a supremely anarchic, libidinal piece of dance. As the curtain rises, a single white cube provides antiseptic light; the dancers clomp onstage making atrocious vocal noises, dressed in gold loincloths and pasties, as one contorts through an ecstasy of solitary panic. (This is a common occurrence in the danceamid campy chaos, lone figures are wracked with excruciating pain.) Throughout the performance, attempts at speech come out as torturous gibberish; the dancers affect slack-jawed simpleton faces, portraying themselves as obscene and rudimentary creatures. The moves are jerky and painful-looking, integrating full-body freak-outs with campy jolts of hip-hop, chop-socky and burlesque. Intercourse is parodied to punishing noise. Invisible strands are pulled agonizingly from throats. After the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is related via torturous narration and subtitles, the narrative fractures and refracts through a hellish echo chamber of interlocking motifs. It’s a long walk through Hades with no beginning or end, distilled to a single protracted feeling of mounting dread.

Yet moments of eerie beauty condense out of the chaos: a group of male dancers, in strap-on dildos and high-heels, move in statuesque silhouette through an immense stillness; female dancers are borne gently across the stage like carved mermaid figureheads on ships. There’s plenty of comedy too: When Eurydice leaves the stage and begins crawling over the first several rows of seats, howling and contorting, two male dancers onstage warn specific front-row customers (“you in the blue shirt”) not to look back at her. More than a meta-touch, it’s subversively funnythe gentleman in the blue shirt seemed to think looking back worth the risk, to get an eyeful of a nearly nude woman up close and personal. And, in a dance this enthrallingly dangerous, that breaking of the fourth wall is keenly feltlater, when the dancers slink to the edge of the stage, leering and caterwauling, I experience a moment of brief but genuine terror that they’ll just keep going, fanning out over the crowd to feast on flesh. It’s a work of magnetic, sometimes almost unendurable intensity that ends with utter annihilation: 15 seconds of stroboscopic rave music seems to detonate a story that, by its very nature, cannot be resolved.