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By Siobhan Burke
Imagine getting the wind knocked out of you—again and again and again—and you’ll get a sense of the thrust behind Deganit Shemy’s Arena. In this evening-length work, a premiere by the New York-based Israeli choreographer, five inexhaustible women are out to get each other, entangled in virtually unrelenting combat. There are no permanent allegiances or wins, but perhaps that’s what makes the work so hard-hitting in the end. Like the most confounding kind of struggle, this fight could go on forever, but the lack of resolution is somehow more stirring than a verdict on the final score.
Shemy uses the trappings of a sporting event, or maybe a high school gym class, as a framework for something much more disquieting and raw. The stage, with its white floor and stripped-down wings, has the sweep of an empty stadium or Olympic-sized pool. Inside the bounds of a brightly lit rectangle, outlined in red tape, dancers viciously interlock: one on one, two on one, four on one. Their remarkably well-timed grappling comes at us in freeze-frame fashion, a succession of buckling knees, snapped-back heads, and pinned-down limbs. (Denisa Musilova’s uniforms of sports bras, gym shorts, and knee pads don’t provide much in the way of armor.) On the murky sidelines, onlookers swig from water bottles, or pace with metronomes in hand. The steady ticking, like the elements of Tei Blow’s soundscape—passing cars, low chattering voices, the occasional roar of a crowd—only heightens the intensity of the fight.
At times Shemy expertly treads the line between violent and erotic lust, suggesting a sensual curiosity lurking, forbidden, beneath otherwise ruthless encounters. When two dancers roll in a tumbling embrace across the floor, then lean into each other as if to kiss, camera flashes erupt just as lips are about to meet. Voyeurs hiding in the wings? This is after they’ve lifted up their tubular gas masks, which form a cumbersome divide between mouths, like barriers warding off intimacy.
Despite its initial grip, Arena sometimes falls flat, and what seems like a climax turns out to be a plateau. It’s not clear why these women are so disturbed, just that they’re disturbed. If a certain depth is missing here, it’s for lack of exploring that “why.” In the second half, when the dancers migrate away from the wrestling ring, as it were, they emerge more clearly as individuals. But the question remains: What motives inhabit the brains behind their possessed, conniving eyes?
Perhaps this unanswered question is inseparable from Arena’s pervading eeriness. And while the work may meander, its piercing finish reminds us of Shemy’s deft way with surprise. As it draws to a close, one dancer approaches another who’s been tossed around and abandoned on the floor. In an unprecedented display of concern, she bends down and whispers something as if to ask, “Are you OK?” But we’re left with the image of her body stooped over a missing one; her peace offering, it seems, has been denied. It’s the evening’s softest gesture, met with its hardest blow.