Inbal Oshman’s ‘M Stabat Mater’ explores trials of motherhood

M Stabat Mater

From left, Adi Peled, Ilana Bellahsen (holding Luciane Castro Fontanella) and Irit Brunner in “M Stabat Mater,” with members of New York Baroque Incorporated behind them.

Dancer Luciane Castro Fontanella tries to escape the role that choreographer Inbal Oshman has assigned to her in “M Stabat Mater,” the economical yet weighty dance for four women that the Inbal Oshman Dance Group, from Israel, presented on Thursday at the Alexander Kasser Theater, in Montclair.

This year’s Peak Performances series is dedicated to women innovators in the performing arts, and the Oshman company’s American debut in a dance about the trials of motherhood also celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

As another woman’s arms encircle Fontanella like pincers, trapping her in a frozen pietà, she slips away and makes a dash for freedom. Fontanella is clearly tired of being a sacrificial lamb; tired of a mother’s suffocating grief; tired of this grim Pascal routine. Alas! There is no place she can hide from the centuries of tradition embodied in the “Stabat Mater,” an ancient Christian hymn describing Mary’s sorrow as she stands at the foot of the Cross.

Ilana Bellahsen in \”M Stabat Mater.\”

Each time Fontanella tries to break away, her energy mysteriously flags and she collapses helplessly allowing her pursuers (Ilana Bellahsen, Irit Brunner and Adi Peled) to catch up with her. Seizing her leg, the other women haul Fontanella back into position. They force her to take her place as the limp and elegantly draped corpse at the center of a mourning tableau.

Too bad. For whatever we may feel, as we recall Christ’s suffering and the misery his mother endured watching Him die, is it really necessary for this dreadful scene to repeat endlessly? Dance is not like painting or sculpture. It’s a living art that not only reminds us of a singular event in the past, but also suggests the immediacy of current events — the ongoing bloodshed and weeping. All those dead children, starved and mutilated in Yemen, for instance. All those mothers, inconsolable. Surely it’s time we put an end to this horror? Not so fast, Oshman tells us. The cruelty of men, and mothers’ broken hearts are inevitable aspects of the human condition.

From the moment of their first appearance, scrambling onstage in darkness, Oshman’s dancers appear too weak to avoid their own destruction, much less alter the course of history. Dragging themselves across the floor, they raise their heads only to fail again and again. Meanwhile, their tragedy crystallizes in the somber, delicate form of a cantata. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” accompanies the dancing, with the musical ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated performing live on stage. An elegant wooden screen acts as backdrop, an acoustical element reinforcing the sound of this ensemble’s antique instruments.

Because the program is brief, no more than an hour in total, New York Baroque Incorporated also plays an introductory number, like a warm-up. That’s Francesco Durante’s “Concerto for Strings no. 2 in G minor.”

Oshman’s contemporary choreography is not Baroque but orderly in its own way, finding stability when the women position themselves at the four corners of a square. Keening, circular movements of the head and upper body translate into walking circles with the women grouped tightly in the center of the space. Without resorting to histrionics, Oshman makes the movement dramatic, bodies crabbed and slumping or widely stretched. At times the women adopt defiant poses that suggest Indian martial arts.

According to a program note, Oshman was also inspired by the figure of the Hindu goddess Kali, another divine mother and a destroyer of evil. The women hold out their palms, signaling “Stop!” and threaten to kick their enemies. Yet in “M Stabat Mater,” resistance to the engulfing tide of sorrow seems futile.

Dipping their fingers into silvery pots, the women daub themselves with streaks of red paint like blood. That’s a striking, if unoriginal theatrical effect (think of Ohad Naharin’s “Black Milk”).

Only at the very end does Oshman suggest a way out. When singers Sherezade Panthaki and Christopher Ainslie step forward to offer the dancers bowls of water, so they can wash off the paint, this dance becomes a cleansing ritual.

The Inbal Oshman Dance Group will perform “M Stabat Mater” at 7:30 p.m. April 13, 8 p.m. April 14 and 3 p.m. April 15. Visit peakperfs.org.

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