Visions of Hell

Presented by the Pittsburgh Dance Council, Emio Greco | PC (a contemporary dance company based in Amsterdam) presented its latest performance-based construction, Hell, last weekend at the Byham Theater. Internationally acclaimed for its innovative pieces, Emio Greco | PC, founded by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten, offered an unconventional and startling new interpretation of contemporary dance.

The piece revolved around a central theme exploring hell, and through its abstractions of movements and themes, it catered to the principle of a free audience. Without any imposed story line, the movements and dance numbers were independent entities: they were only loosely connected to each other, despite smooth transitions, and allowed room for viewers to adapt the piece to their own interpretations.

The opening to the show had a slower pace than the content that followed. With slow movements and deliberate, drawn-out beats, the dancers displayed sharp, staccato movements characteristic of the performance. Permeating throughout was a general sense of frustration, which could be seen in the company’s movements on stage. The emotional roots of the motions were simple to recognize, in the twitching movement of a foot in passé, the jerking of the arms, or the billowing cigarette smoke that would occasionally drift from the mouth of a dancer. The general idea was to interpret the daily frustrations of life as a kind of hell, an urban hell of responsibility and deadlines.

The latter parts of the show consisted of faster movements and freer motion, allowing the dancers to fling themselves into the choreography in controlled abandon. There was a very precise limpness to the steps, except for breaks within some of the numbers, when classical music interrupted the scene and the performers altered their style of dance accordingly. Bright spots in the choreography, opposite the starker, more minimalist styles of dance found in the opening number, included a dance in which clean lines came through in complete clarity. Performed in the nude, this section of the show offered both synchronized and contrast dancing (where a minority does something opposite a majority in choreography).

Close to the end of the show was the most striking presentation of movement, incorporating the concepts of paired dancing with the addition of a “seventh” wheel. The pairs survived, and the seventh died. The dancers rose and fell in great numbers, the pairs broke apart under the influence of the seventh, their members switched — a tango of sorts occurred. The movements remained loose but angular, and Hell took on a feeling of lust, desire, loss, and solitude in its efforts to caress the viewer’s consciousness.
In concert with the movement were the performance’s concepts in lighting. The opening number capitalized on the reflective properties of the stage’s surface, which created the effect of depth and odd skews on dimensional perspectives. The effect was reminiscent of abstract art in a museum. The lights also played in numbers, sometimes representing and mirroring the flow of movement on stage, and sometimes providing outlines of formations for the audience’s convenience.

The set of the stage was bare, with a single, leafless tree and a glowing archway whose lights were lost within the show. The music was a strange mixture of haunting natural sounds, parts of which seemed to be Japanese-inspired, and snippets of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. But the most salient parts of the performance were when the music dimmed to a low, barely audible hum, and the sound that took the forefront was only the dancers’ breathing. The stomps, the landings, the brushes and sweeps of legs and arms against the reflective stage floors — all of these could also be distinguished, but the breathing, sometimes ragged and individual, sometimes in synchronization between all the dancers on stage, was resounding and worthy of goosebumps.

Despite its generally abstract content, Hell was a solid and cohesive performance in which themes held fast while interpretations were given free reign. The contemporary style of dance, sharp and unapologetic, may be best suited for an audience knowledgeable about contemporary dance. Presenting a fresh twist on a theme often belabored, Emio Greco | PC’s performance of Hell was enough to send viewers away refreshed, a little bemused, and pondering their own versions of hell.