There was a time when every member of the audience at Montclair State University would have had personal acquaintance with some form of folk dancing. That time has passed. The Square Dance and the Virginia Reel have gone the way of the barn-raising, with only scattered groups of enthusiasts keeping them alive.
Reduced to the condition of TV junkies, feebly sinking into our seats, we gape in astonishment at the vital spectacle of community that Greek choreographer Tzeni Argyriou and her pickup company offer us in “ANΩNYMO,” the show that made its American debut on May 4 at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, as part of the Peak Performances series. How many of us have even seen a folk dance? What are these people doing, linking arms and stamping out a rhythm? Is there an app for that?
Maybe it’s time we returned to our beginnings, and started over. Argyriou certainly thinks so. Although she is a “modern” dancer, her mission, in “ANΩNYMO,” is to carry us far into the past, into a murky pre-history where humanity first discovered its potential in collective displays of simple, repetitive movements. The first human language was physical. Codified in ritual, these synchronized steps laid the foundation of civilization — and of organized thought itself.
No one knows what the first dance looked like, so Argyriou contents herself with combining elements of those communal dances that survive, sampling from the Global Jukebox. “Today I’m going to show you the traditional dances of my country,” Stavroula Siamou says, softly stepping sideways and crossing her ankles.
At the beginning of the piece — which is to say the beginning of Time — the dancers arrange themselves in a line, each one identified with a gestural symbol like a totem. Gradually these signatures erode and our ancestors develop handicrafts, their fingers pulling spidery threads and making primitive calculations. They must still pass through the raw meat phase, however, squeaking, hooting, and growling.
Clearly there is room for improvement. The dancers divide into pairs, but seem unable to make meaningful connections. A breakthrough comes, however, when Nancy Stamatopoulou discovers dancing on her own. We see her frozen in mid-step, with her arms raised, breathing hoarsely. Hermes Malkotsis notices, too, and begins to imitate her. Soon, someone takes her hand, and a line forms. The finger-snapping rhythms of the bouzouki still lie thousands of years in the future, but we are on our way.
As “ANΩNYMO” evolves, Argyriou’s fecund imagination generates choreographic patterns tirelessly. The performers flock like birds. They wheel and charge like herds of buffalo. Arranged single-file, they follow winding pathways and gather in circles. The choreography shrinks when the performers cluster together; at other moments, it expands into far-flung constellations. Once a kind of madness seizes the performers, and their movements become frenzied. Then the ties that bind the community appear broken but, no, they are experiencing this madness together, possessed by the same demons.
Argyriou saves her best effects for last — wonderful line dances with the performers braided together, their arms crisscrossed or looped, alternately ducking under bridges. Here the strict, visual rhythm reminds us that the first machines were human, too. Yet the enslaved masses who built pyramids in times of peace, and razed cities in times of war, are not Argyriou’s concern. Her community is gentle, and as the dancers in a line shift position they caress one another’s shoulders and heads.
Lighting designer Vangelis Mountrichas places the action around midnight, in a dark, cave-like space. The darkness, however, allows him to point out certain features of the dance, so at one point he illumines only heads and shoulders, emphasizing the dancers’ swinging arms. At another time, they appear as black silhouettes against a white background, the background dropping until we only see their feet stamping in wide-soled shoes. At still other times, Mountrichas envelops them in a warm glow like firelight. Then we yearn to join the tightly knit clan, tossing aside our smartphones and returning to the human family, summoned by the rhythms of life.
Remaining performances of “ANΩNYMO” take place May 5 at 7:30 p.m., May 6 at p.m. and May 7 at 3 p.m. at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Visit peakperfs.org.
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