Brutish Theater

"Wrestling Dostoevsky"
Danspace Project
New York, NY
October 19, 2006

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright 2006 by Lisa Rinehart

Jerzy Grotowski would have liked the Slovenian group, Betontanc — if not because they want to break all the rules, than at least because they don't bruise easily. Betontanc's six actors sing, jog, slam dance, and literally wrestle through a gutsy distillation of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" that leaves one hoping there's a physical therapist in the house. With "Wrestling Dostoevsky," director Matjaz Pograjc successfully conjoins MTV era dance theater with cut to the bone honesty, and achieves a pleasingly disturbing result. Surely Grotowski, ever the provocateur, lurks in the murky corners of St. Mark's Church (the site of the performance, as well as that of his 1999 memorial) and smiles in ghostly approval.

Betontanc translates to Cement Dance, an oxymoronic title that suits Pograjc's desire to be contrary. Indeed, the program's description of the group is a shouted manifesto proclaiming allegiance to nothing except a commitment to be "On the other side of history, of politics. Outre." Such statements sound quaintly collegiate in our politically apathetic country, and suggest the possibility that Betontanc's work will be well intentioned, but amateurish. Far from it. Betontanc wrests Dostoevsky's interwoven themes of alienation and nihilism from the text and presents them in aggressively physical movement mirroring the book's emotional extremes. There's even some humor for those who can't stomach too much of the despairing Eastern European thing. Better yet, this sometimes enigmatic romp with Raskolnikov is never convoluted enough to require a hasty look at Spark Notes for clarification. Pograjc knows how to walk the line between mystery and coherence.

By way of oriental carpets and honeyed lamplight glowing from period garments scattered throughout the audience, St. Marks is transformed into a deceptively comforting 19th century salon. The actors enter (all identified in the program as wrestling versions of Dostoevsky's characters), and the audience is asked to turn on the lamps. Next, we're offered cookies. Ginger snaps to be precise. Pograjc definitely has our attention, but in sharp contrast to this cozy beginning, Raskolnikov's world of alienation begins to materialize as performers rush about in a strange meet and greet of truncated niceties. They pair up intermittently, tightly interlocking their legs and sitting as though held up by invisible chairs, always avoiding the other's gaze. This motif of people meeting, but never connecting, is brought to full flower in a graphically sexual duet between Raskolnikov's sister, Dunja (Irena Kovacevic), and the man obsessed with her, Svidrigajlov (Branko Potocan). The duet begins with the couple grasping at one another, but never keeping hold, then escalates to a full out wrestle for control in which one or the other is subjugated and humiliated. The actors fling each other to the ground, grunting with effort and frustration, and it's probably as close as one can come to watching a stylized rape.

There are other powerful moments such as when the actors transform a black cloth from a shroud to a tablecloth to a cloak wrapped about one actor as he's manipulated on the back of another to conjure the old crone Raskolnikov has murdered. If this sounds terribly dark and depressing, it's balanced by lighter moments of unison club style dancing which, while underscoring Raskolnikov's despair, provides a degree of comic relief. Like Dostoyevsky, Pograjc wants to reassure us that human beings, for all their flaws, can be redeemed by the giving and receiving of love. In the end, even the tortured Raskolnikov is forgiven and loved by Sonja, suggesting that if there's hope for him, there's hope for all of us.

Seeing this piece confirms an equally uplifting message — there's hope for movement, and movement theater, as a viable means for the expression of dense ideas. Unexamined emotion is frequently the provenance of movement, but with Pograjc's work, we are looking closely at the human psyche replete with intellectual and emotional complexities. There a few gaps where ideas are under developed or even unnecessary, but nothing detracts from Pograjc's satisfying gestalt. The four other actors (Andreja Kopac, Dasa Dobersek, Primoz Bezjak, and particularly, Branko Jordan), are fully committed and very fine. Betontanc says, "If you are good, you have to proclaim yourself. As loud as possible! Otherwise, you don't exist." OK. Consider this a shout out from one admiring viewer.


Volume 4, No. 38
October 23, 2006

copyright ©2006 Lisa Rinehart



©2006 DanceView