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Liam Burke: ‘Underland’ Elevates Gothic Culture to the Sophisticated

A dangerous and edgy dance work presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures resolves into light

You can’t help but think about the HBO series True Blood as you watch Stephen Petronio’s “Underland,” but don’t get me wrong, there are no fangs or Sookie Stackhouse here. But the realm to which we are introduced has that same timeless, morbid beauty, and that, too, could be in the past, or yet again, in the future.

With the music of Nick Cave at the core of this dark theatrical experience, solos, duets, a quartet and many ensemble dances revolve with an eerie numbness throughout the night. And like all great drama, Petronio’s choreography gives us a full fall and a recovery, with comedy thrown in to boot.

But unlike the gregarious movement spectacles of a lot of dance works, “Underland” dramatically beguiles us. It lures us to an emotionally disarming place, where the dancers are relatively expressionless, and yet they speak in volumes. In one dance, “The Carny,” the drone of Cave’s music and lyrics sets the theatrical stage with its haunting waltz a la “Corpse Bride,” as three couples dance (the women in tutus and bras and the men in tanks). But they do not waltz. Instead, they hop (sometimes sideways) and extend in every direction.

Petronio’s signature style has rather set into your being by now. Turns end with a leg swinging out and around (or a leg and an arm), catapulting through the air with barrel force, as these modern movements are disrupted only occasionally by tiny, fast balletic jumps with ankle-bashing beats, known in the ballet world as “petite batterie” (for good reason).

“The Weeping Song” has the dancers dressed as POWs as they execute steps of pain and numbness before they end marching in lines all over the stage but with apparently no place to go. Then “The Ship Song,” a smorgasbord of movement ideas for four dancers, squeezed small pleasures into this dark place and in doing so squeezed laughter out of the audience. It began in a tableau with two men and two women groping at each other in delicious ways.

The brilliant costume designing of Tara Subkoff had one man wearing a leather jacket and tiny whities and a woman in a dress with a double “leg o mutton: torso. It was a Gothic masterpiece, the women and men kissed, the women kissed, the men kissed, they changed partners, leaned into each other, circled and touched each other with the tenderness of survivors.

Then “Stagger Lee” steadily raised the bar but with comedic pendulum-swinging legs and wonderful unison in the men, and then a truly dangerous pas de deux by the brilliant Natalie Mackessy and Barrington Hinds. It was one of those moments you almost jump out of your seat, when Hinds throws Mackessy around his torso and catches her by a leg. She held herself in the air, though, proving themselves and the rest of the dancers to be extreme athletes and another generation of marvelous Petronio technicians.

That relentless droning in Petronio’s choreography works so beautifully with Cave’s music. The finale, “Death is Not the End,” is hauntingly danced in simple white costumes, but it lifts your spirit to a place you don’t normally get to watching dance. Men jumping and suspending themselves in the air with a great and heavy weight inside them — this is extraordinarily difficult to pull off well.

It gave me the feeling that there might be more to drop and if Petronio might be planning an “Underland, Part 2.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Liam Burke covers dance and has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Australia and The James White Review. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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