In “The Night Falls,” which received its premiere Feb. 9 at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, a small but feisty group called BalletCollective addresses a knotty problem for dance artists. Audiences love story ballets, but with some notable exceptions, today’s choreographers have failed to produce narratives as compelling as those of the 19th century classics. With our society increasingly divided, is there a story that speaks to our time, and can bring us all together?
The obvious solution — hire a writer — does not seem to have occurred to anyone except Troy Schumacher, BalletCollective’s founding artistic director, who enlisted novelist Karen Russell (“Swamplandia”) to supply the ingenious and timely plot for “The Night Falls,” a joint production of BalletCollective and the Peak Performances series at Montclair State. This ambitious production also features a commissioned score, by turns impressionistic and tuneful, by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, pairing dancers and singers in what might be called an “opéra-dansé.” Schumacher’s choreography is not consistently imaginative, but “The Night Falls” still makes a bold, creative statement.
The evening’s greatest success belongs to Russell, who, sniffing the air around her, has caught the undesirable scent of prussic acid. Suicidal despair is the theme of “The Night Falls,” which depicts a wave of hopelessness and suffering washing over America. Notably, Russell perceived this social problem spreading even before opioids and the events of the last three years resulted in an ominous spike in mortality.
Another writer might look to assign responsibility for this malaise, but Russell is not so inclined. She chooses to highlight the struggle of characters who are traumatized and psychologically broken. In “The Night Falls,” we are introduced to Felisberto, a gay teenager devastated by his lover’s sudden death; Angela, a tennis player whose self-confidence has evaporated; Nadia, a mother tortured by her inability to save her daughter’s life; Allan, a paranoid hunter who suspects that a predator is stalking him; and others.
All these stories are believable, but Russell ties them together with a wry, supernatural twist that lightens the atmosphere. In this scenario, a trio of Sirens from Greek mythology have installed themselves in a dilapidated campground in Florida (the author’s home state).
These ancient temptresses have become a roadside attraction luring tourists to a watery death in the grotto behind their theater. The tagline on their stained and weathered billboard reads, “Let your earthly cares dissolve,” and naturally they also advertise on television. In the first act of “The Night Falls,” set in Felisberto’s bedroom, the Sirens’ TV ad interrupts a news broadcast. Watching the nightly news these days could lead anyone to despair, after which the call to “Give up!” and purchase a one-way bus ticket to Florida might begin to sound attractive. Will Russell’s vulnerable characters succumb to extinction, or will they survive?
Like all the characters in “The Night Falls,” the Sirens are double-cast. In their TV ad, the dancing Sirens are showgirls who perform a tits-and-feathers burlesque number reminiscent of a Las Vegas revue (though Karen Young’s costumes are surprisingly demure). Dropping this disguise, the singing Sirens reveal themselves to be chalk-faced harridans draped in black. The other singers appear in an illuminated space above the stage wearing street clothes that match those of the dancers playing Felisberto, Angela, etc.
Jason Ardizzone-West has created a multimedia setting that includes quaint storybook illustrations projected onto scrims. These images magically dissolve into live action scenes. Despite the seriousness of its theme, this production does not shy away from ectoplasmic special effects. Music director Naomi Woo conducts a 10-piece orchestra live.
Because the narrative involves a series of confessions, solos dominate the choreography. Most of the time, Schumacher manages to express a particular character’s dilemma or state of mind through bodily plastique, although the temptation is always there to lapse into the ballet dancer’s default mode, showcasing athletic leaps and turns. Dancer Amari Frazier, as Felisberto, lifts his chest and swells with emotion, gliding and making soft gestures. As Nadia, the mother, Laurie Kanyok is drawn downward. Her body shrinks, and she lashes out in exhaustion. Brendon Chan, the hunter, displays a bold directness. He guts invisible carcasses, then finds himself caught and strangled by assailants.
The most interesting solo deconstructs the skittering, dodging steps and lunges of the tennis player, danced by Dabria Aguilar.
Framing these solos, and other episodes, are ensemble sections characterized by ragged gestures and frenzy, and moments when people fail to grasp what they reach for. Despair is not always so kinetic, but Schumacher seems to fear a break in the action. The relatively spare gestures he has devised for the singers have a concentrated emotion that can feel more affecting than the dancers’ mad rush.
“The Night Falls” continues with performances Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 12 at 3 p.m. Visit peakperfs.org.
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