Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019

UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill

Put together David Lang, a Pulitzer-winning composer who tempers cutting edges with impeccable taste; Maya Beiser, a fearless cellist who plays with eldritch power and finesse; Wendy Whelan, who brings thirty years of experience with New York City Ballet to her newer adventures in modern dance; and Lucinda Childs, who helped to encrypt the postmodern playbook with the legendary Judson Dance Theater.

What could possibly go wrong?

Pretty much nothing, and perhaps that’s why, despite the high quality and production value of THE DAY, the stakes felt a little low. Carolina Performing Arts was one of several national institutions that commissioned the piece, and at Memorial Hall on Tuesday, its severe beauty and technical polish made for a compact, captivating evening, but one that left only a light mark.

The two-act show’s almost forbidding minimalist grandeur was announced at once, when the cellist, on a rhomboid platform, and the dancer, in a jagged outline of tape on the floor, sprang out of the darkness like spotlit statues in a nighttime garden. Video projections covered the stage’s entire rear wall, sometimes filled with faces and bodies, others with ghostly train terminals or immersive effects of eclipsed sea and sky. 

THE DAY originated as a collaboration between Lang and Beiser—the second part was written just after 9/11, while the first part was a prequel they created a few years ago—and it shows, as the music remains the most substantial part. Lang gives Beiser stern yet lyrical lines to unravel, full of long, low trills, like the lick of a giant serpent’s tongue. Playing with dark, fluid tone over recorded string pulses that extended her already-uncanny technique, Beiser would sometimes unleash these concussive blasts that seemed like ripple effects of a striking video section in which falling cellos exploded with an incommensurate wrecking-ball sound.

There’s more going on in the dancing in the first act, as Whelan recombines a minimal array of props—a long loop of ribbon, a stuffed sheet evocative of a cartoon ghost—to do geometry on the stage’s other parallelograms and to hint at a narrative. The ribbon became, at various times, a triangle, a plucked bass string, and a pair of hiking poles. 

But in the second act, when the dancer and cellist traded positions, Whelan’s movement had a flatter effect. She executed Childs’s fastidious, restrained choreography faultlessly, as one would expect from a dancer of her caliber and ballet background. But perhaps one wanted … a little bit more fault? Or a fault line, a freedom, some area of rupture. The section was pleasant but bound deeply inside the production’s imposing distance, and I did let myself close my eyes and sweep off with the music once in a while.  

The text—the recorded voice that played through much of the show, made from Lang’s usual internet-y methods of recombination and collage—was superlative, layered onto the cello’s emotional content and providing an emotional context. Rolling out refrains by alphabetical stages and substitutions, with statements starting with the words “I arrived” inching into “I began” and “I bought,” it seemed to encompass all of life and loss, of love and mourning, mining the deepest human impulses from the quotidian. 

THE DAY ends with a coup de théâtre that I shouldn’t spoil; suffice it to say that something diaphanous spills from one world into another, while something dark as midnight billows like smoke and falls like stone. The beauty of it is undeniable but, like the show it inhabits, it’s also slightly remote in a way that is hard to describe—something to do with its seamless engineering, its metaphysical confidence—and I left with a handful of moments of awe, though much else was already melting away. But isn’t that just how days can be. 

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