On a recent Saturday evening we drove up E. 185th Street to the LaSalle Theatre to see the world premiere of Verb Ballets’ Anti/gone with high expectations.
Tommie-Waheed Evans has choreographed other dances for Verb, 2 of which led us to expect a great deal from Anti/gone. But, after watching Anti/gone, those same 2 dances shined light on why Anti/gone fell short of our high expectations.
There was another reason for our high hopes for Anti/gone. We first encountered Sophocles’ Antigone in the late 1960’s when that play was widely seen as a metaphor for civil disobedience in service of the causes of the day, African-American civil rights and opposition to the war in Vietnam. The character of Antigone, a slip of a girl standing against an arbitrary tyrant, wasn’t the only role model for radical dissenters in the 60’s, but she was part of a classical text that provided both emotional and intellectual consideration of a tradition of civil disobedience at least 2500 years old and we and many of our classmates read that text for inspiration as well as for its place in the undergraduate humanities curriculum.
Once we’d arrived at the LaSalle, Evans’ written introduction to Anti/gone raised our expectations still higher when he talked about reimagining the classic Greek tragedy “through contemporaneous world building”. We wondered which of today’s pressing issues Evans would reference. Black Lives Matter? Climate Change? Stop the Steal?
Were we expecting too much from a dance? No. Look at another dance that Evans set on Verb, Surge.Capacity.Force., an emotional, cathartic treatment of the very current and pressing problems of refugees and borders. Its recorded sound track is punctuated with live cries from the dancers who take on the role of refugees and would-be immigrants. “Why won’t you take me?” “We’re human beings!” At the very end we hear a sound clip, apparently a refugee crying out in despair. It’s powerful stuff. The dancing in Surge. Capacity. Force. was organized around a recurrent pattern of individuals breaking out of groups, an assignment the Verb dancers threw themselves into with fierce commitment. Timed with the dancers’ voices, those breaks were very effective at aligning our sympathies with the homeless and the excluded.
How successfully Evans cut through to the essence of the issue! What country are the refugees from? What country are they trying to enter? For the purposes of the dance, it doesn’t matter. Their voices identify them as desperate refugees and that’s all we need to know
So, Evans and Verb had done something powerful and timely in Surge. Capacity. Force. And we hoped and believed that they could do something equally powerful in Anti/gone.
But alas, once the actual dancing started, our hopes were quickly dashed. Anti/gone made only scant reference to Antigone the classical text, nor did we discern any reference to contemporary issues.
At first we expected to see individual dancers taking on the roles of characters in Antigone and so for a while we thought that Kelly Korfhage was playing the role of Antigone, pointing an accusing finger at Antonio Morillo, who seemed to be taking on the role of Creon. In a duet between the two, Morillo / Creon held Korfhage / Antigone upside down. That position seemed a good embodiment of the relationship between Antigone and Creon. He has power over her but she does not yield to his power, for she obeys a higher law. As SparkNotes renders her answer to Creon:
Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
Justice, enacted not these human laws.
Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
Could’st by a breath annul and override
The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
But other women pointed accusing fingers at other men during Anti/gone, so character assignments were apparently fluid. Unfortunately, in Anti/gone the absence of other identifying movement motifs renders casting indeterminate; any dancer might be portraying any character at any moment.
Did any of the dancing — movement motifs — in Anti/gone indicate any of the 7 or so other characters in Antigone? Not that we could see. None of the men reclined on the floor to portray the rotting corpse of Polynices, Antigone’s brother. Did anyone portray Ismene, Antigone’s sister? Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé? Or Euridice, Creon’s wife? Tiresias, the blind prophet? Again, not that we could see. Nor did we see any reference to the suicides of Antigone, Haemon, or Euridice.
How about references in the dance to contemporary civil disobedience? Yes, possibly, but those references are very abstract. Anti/gone has many formations in which one dancer stands in opposition to a group, a group of dancers stand in a line opposite one dancer, or a group of dancers dance in a circle around one dancer. We acknowledge that these formal groupings, the likes of which appear in any dance, could be said to represent a lawful demonstration or civil disobedience and that in the context of a dance that aspires to reference Antigone, such formal groupings could possibly arouse strong feelings in some people. But for us and, we suspect, for most in the audience, it was too abstract and unspecific to arouse strong feelings. Whichever side of the political divide people are on, everyone has had the very visceral experience of at least watching video of the January 6th Stop the Steal attack on the capitol or Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Unfortunately, Anti/gone offered nothing to suggest the passionate intensity of our contemporary situation.
What Anti/gone does have besides formal groupings is an abundance of duets. In one sequence, six couples perform pas de deux in unison, complete with overhead lifts. It’s an impressive display of Verb’s deep resources, but what does this have to do with Anti/gone? Nothing that we could see.
Throughout its 60 minute duration, Anti/gone has at least six more duets or pas de deux, three consisting of a woman and a man and three consisting of two men. None made any obvious reference to either the classical text, Antigone, or the contemporary situation, but one particularly nice pas de deux between Emily Dietz and Ben Shepard stood out for us. In a lift that reminded us of the movie Dirty Dancing or the ballet Giselle, Dietz ran toward Shepard and he caught her and held her prone body at arms’ length overhead. Then, with impressive control from both dancers, he slowly knelt before she came down. Throughout their pas de deux, both dancers showed elegant, secure partnering with an emphasis on moderne lines for Dietz. Like all the dancing in Anti/gone, it was skilled, polished, and performed with commitment but choreographed in a way that had little or no discernible relevance to either the classical text or the contemporary situation.
However disappointed we were with some aspects of Anti/gone, it succeeds handily as a partnering workshop. Would that we had realized this from the beginning. We could have enjoyed the partnering rather than searching unsuccessfully for what turned out not to be there.
Music for Anti/gone was composed by Greg Smith, who also composed the music for another Verb piece choreographed by Evans, Dark Matter. Interestingly, Dark Matter resembles Anti/gone in that it aspired to a programmatic meaning but arguably could become a better dance by abandoning that aspiration and becoming simply a successful visualization of the music.
Costumes for Anti/gone were by Philista Marie Mills, CEO of House of Mills, who also did costumes for Verb’s recent Romeo and Juliet. See our review (Verb’s Romeo and Juliet – Cleveland Concert Dance). Like her costumes for Romeo and Juliet, Mills’ costumes for Anti/gone appeared to include nothing off the rack and made no effort to evoke classical Greek tunics or robes. Instead her costumes for Anti/gone are highly uniform and sleekly contemporary.
Mills costumed Verb’s women in pointe shoes with black, sheer tights and black leotards with black faux leather sheen. The men were in ankle-length black or gold palazzo pants, some of which had tiered ruffles. The men’s leotards were black and sleeveless and also had faux leather sheen.
In one scene toward the end of Anti/gone, Dietz dances in a white gown while surrounded by the cast in black and gold. It’s a beautiful gown and presents a striking contrast to the black and gold costumed dancers that surround her.
It’s worth mentioning that in her solo in white Emily Dietz has once again stepped in for another dancer at the last minute and acquitted herself admirably. What does being an understudy mean? It means being ready.
Verb Ballets performed the world premiere of Anti/gone at the LaSalle Theatre on Saturday April 9, 2022.
Next up for Verb, Cain Park on Saturday 6/25/2022. Go to VerbBallets.org to learn more.
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas