Despite clever touches, ‘Rocco’ doesn’t deliver knockout blow

Arnaud Macquet and Quentin Dehaye in "Rocco."

MARINA LEVITSKAYA

Arnaud Macquet and Quentin Dehaye in “Rocco,” which is being presented at Montclair State University through Sunday.

Whatever else one learns from “Rocco,” the intimate dance for four men that choreographer Emio Greco and director Pieter C. Scholten brought to the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University on Thursday, one thing becomes clear: Choreographers don’t watch movies the way the rest of us do.

This dance set in an onstage boxing ring, with viewers seated on ringside bleachers, was inspired by the 1961 Luchino Visconti movie, “Rocco and His Brothers.” Yet while a typical movie-goer hangs on every word as actress Annie Girardot stands with her coat torn open to reveal her brassiere, and defiantly tells her obsessed stalker, the failed boxer played by Renato Salvatori, “You’re a beast. Everything you touch becomes foul, vulgar …,” the choreographer is not munching popcorn but instead is looking for a gesture he can borrow. It might be the stealthy way Salvatori reaches into his pocket and pulls out a knife, or the way Girardot opens her arms in surrender before he stabs her over and over. What happens next is key.  The choreographer must take the pilfered movements and re-assemble them in a way that makes sense without the juicy dialogue and scenery.

The point of “Rocco,” the dance, is evidently not to re-create “Rocco,” the movie. The scene described above does not appear in the dance, and Girardot’s character has been eliminated entirely, along with the poignant back-story of downtrodden Italian peasants trying to make a life for themselves in the city. Instead we have a study of physical relationships in space that often feels bloodless, despite the pugilistic posturing and the performers’ sweaty commitment to their roles.

The most intriguing episode occurs early in the dance, as Arnaud Macquet and Quentin Dehaye, two characters dressed in silken boxers’ trunks, circle warily around a vertical shaft of light that may recall the beam cast by a movie projector. Face to face, or side by side, they mirror each other’s curving, stretching movements, and reach tentatively into the light with a quaking foot. As a bell clangs announcing the start of each new “round,” the beam of light widens and the scene grows brighter until glare bathes the audience.

The movement also grows larger and more emphatic; and a second pair of dancers, Edward Lloyd and Dereck Cayla, who make their first appearance as clowning mice, gradually shed their mouse ears, rubber noses and sweaters.

These changes promise a revelation of some sort, but “Rocco” never gets past the observation that ambiguity haunts our relationships. When two people grapple in close quarters, it may be hard — even for the people themselves — to tell whether they are lovers or sworn enemies.

Performances continue Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State, 1 Normal Ave., Montclair. Tickets are $20. Call (973) 655-6112 or visit peakperfs.org.

Also, Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at Montclair State’s Memorial auditorium, professor Teresa Fiore will moderate a discussion with Greco and Scholten about the relationship of the movie to the dance.

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