There was a telling prelude to Pennsylvania Dance Theatre’s “por la blanda arena.” Choreographer Andre Koslowski walked out into the lobby of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and laid down inside a human-sized crystal enclosure and went to “sleep” on a bed of rose petals.
It set the tone for the full production (we had seen a preview during KST’s newMoves Festival last spring) inside the theater, instigating a few questions. Would this performance have a dream-like state? Would it have a surreal flavor?
To me the answer was a resounding “yes” on both counts, for Andre likes to take disparate stories (all provided by his terrific collaborators) and use them to create a work. Usually it’s attached to the dark themes and dry humor found in the stylized images of German Expressionism.
Thus we had more of the afore-mentioned rose petals, a suspended paper sculpture that, with Scott Nelson’s proper lighting was transformed into a large sculptural rose at one point, a number of folding chairs and three movable screens, which also served as a palette for Vanessa Bricerio-Scherzer’s landscape video designs.
Oh, and dozens of white styrofoam mannequin heads.
Dressed in Naoko Nagata’s sadly sophisticated black dresses, Jennifer Keller, Tina Konrath, Sheila McKenna and Jil Stifel rounded out the cast. Each had a signature solo that embedded itself at the back of our brains.
The usually soft-spoken Jennifer scurried onto the stage with one of those heads nestled in a scarf wrapped around her neck, looked at the audience and snarled, “Wha-a-at?” “She didn’t seem surprised at all,” intoned Sheila as she notably added increasingly apparent alcoholic slurs to her repetitive speech. Tina claimed a jiggly walk and Jil (so good to see her back on the stage) captured a soft sense of Spanish duende in a lyrical, deeply emotional solo.
As for Andre, he yelled, “This is my house.”
There was more to this The group morosely listed unwanted body parts — short, fine hair, long nose, fat. Wet Kleenex played a part near the end.
Yet the primary choreographic blocks, all seemingly jagged little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, became utterly seamless for most of this oddly whimsical dream, although it meandered a bit near the end.
But during sleep, uncommonly heightened images also meander through the brain, yet reflect life in vivid colors and improbable images. After the KST newMoves preview, “por la blanda arena” (which, by the way, translates as “by the soft sand”) emerged us a memorable piece of dance theater and perhaps Andre’s finest. With all the dire social, political and economic environment currently surrounding us, this piece had some great moments, mainly teaching us to laugh at life’s absurdities.
I think I’ll find a beach.