The Yucatán jungle is never far from the thoughts of Javier Dzul. Steaming, crawling and alive with deadly challenges, it returns to motivate this Mexican artist as he pursues his career as a dancer cum circus performer in the United States. The jungle and its inhabitants are, in fact, the protagonists of Dzul’s work, “The Last Mayan King,” which received it premiere on Sept. 20, opening the Live Arts series at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.
When we first meet Dzul, he is hanging upside down in mid-air, virtually naked, with his crotch exposed in a split. The pose would be startling enough, even if dangling beneath him we didn’t find Chloe Goolsby, a young lady who looks remarkably cool as she hangs on for dear life. Immediately, “The Last Mayan King” plunges us into a world filled with strange and marvelous sights.
The show purports to illustrate Dzul’s life. Yet it can only be understood as a biography in which the dancer’s body has fused with the landscape of his early years — a forest tangled with vines, stalked by animals, and electrified by the immanent presence of Gods.
Every once in a while, the dancers in “The Last Mayan King” appear wearing street clothes, displaying steps as if they were in a classroom. But then the stage darkens again. We hear the sounds of violent wind and rain (the weather is terrifying here), and we find ourselves back in the land of magic realism.
Dzul was born into a small Mayan community, where he remained until the age of 16. Then he joined Amalia Hernández’s celebrated Ballet Folklórico de México, beginning a career that would take him into the Martha Graham Dance Company and beyond. He is now 50.
Apart from the jungle and the traditions of his first community, however, the biggest influence on Dzul seems to be the circus. He choreographs with an eye to striking images, and the movement between poses doesn’t seem to matter much to him. Usually he provides a slow, careful preparation for the next acrobatic stunt, ringing the changes on a painful-looking backbend with the performer’s legs arched over her head. The rhythm of the movement remains steady, with little dynamic variation, which perhaps contributes to this work’s otherworldly atmosphere. Still, “The Last Mayan King” lacks kinetic excitement.
Emotionally, the piece is also subdued. When a man and a woman latch onto each other, they do so mechanically, as if elemental forces were coming together rather than human beings. The thrill that an audience member experiences watching maneuvers that may land the performers in a wheelchair is another story.
Still, the closest we get to a sense of abandon comes in a solo for Amadeus Lopez, in which the dancer attaches ropes to his wrists and climbs into the air, spinning and torquing his body. He almost seems ready to let go. (Evidently, it’s just the illusion of freedom that we crave, since if Lopez really did let go he would sail into the wings, and we would never hear from him again.)
Dzul flirts with choreographic architecture in a couple of ritual numbers in which the group encircles and frames a soloist (first lively Nobutaka Mochimaru, and later the elegant Noriko Naraoka). Yet the big picture is not this choreographer’s forte. He’s better at the little things, zeroing in on an isolated movement like the small circle that a shoulder makes, or the way a leg rises and suddenly locks into place as the dancer achieves equilibrium.
Despite the lack of impulse, Dzul’s work has a compelling physicality. For me, the highlight comes in a solo where the choreographer turns his naked back to the audience and shows us the play of muscles as his shoulder blades come together and separate, and his spine writhes. Unfortunately, that’s not a very original image.
Stunning masks and gorgeous headdresses put “The Last Mayan King” over the top, in a Vegas showgirl sort of way. It’s all good fun, and the conscientious cast gives it their best.
Rarely, however, does “The Last Mayan King” rise above tourist entertainment.
For more on the Live Arts series at the Morris Museum, visit morrismuseum.org/livearts.
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