Review: Bauschian Mortal Themes With a Light Touch

A quizzical-looking man removes his clothes and lies on his back. He might be sunbathing, except that he appears to be in a graveyard. Another man covers him with a shroudlike white sheet. Then a third man drops a thin panel, displacing air that blows the sheet away. This exposes the quizzical-looking man, but only briefly, until the second man vehemently covers him again.

This sequence repeats many times at the start of and throughout “The Great Tamer,” an adroit dance-theater work by the Greek director Dmitris Papaionnou that had its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday. The sense of circularity, at once fated and capricious, proves representative, as do the intimations of mortality. But what the sequence establishes most distinctively is a light, comic tone. Like the sheet, this work floats.

Mr. Papaionnou has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Greece, but if he is known to New York audiences at all it is probably as the first choreographer to create a new full-length work for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal since her death. That 2018 piece, “Since She,” not yet performed here, was reportedly lacking in Bauschian existential comedy. “The Great Tamer,” made in 2017, is not.

It is close kin to one kind of Bauschian dance-theater: a dreamlike succession of vignettes, sometimes connected by associative logic, sometimes not, but almost never including any conventional dance. Its generally slow pacing and painterly composition recall the work of Robert Wilson, and the sprinkling of acrobatic balances and contortion is a little cirque nouveau. The circularity, though, is echt-Bausch, as is the preoccupation with things being done to impassive people, minus the Bauschian edge of cruelty.

The set could easily be one of hers, too. It’s an uneven, sloping hill tiled with a surface of thin, removable panels. Peel one up, and you might find a body, or a body part, or a pool. It’s like a graveyard, but also like an Advent calendar.

Surprise is part of the comedy. Most of the work is accompanied by a stretched-out arrangement of Strauss’s “Blue Danube” waltz, fitting the drawn-out pacing and riverine flow of overlapping, cross-fading images and recurrent characters. But quick reveals have the impact of punch lines.

A group in black lays a nearly naked man on a table. With an instant addition of ruff collars, they become Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson.” Pushing that idea a step further, they pull out some fake guts. Then they set the table and eat them.

Sure. Why not? The light tone diffuses the pretension of this and other art-historical allusions. Although some images are spectacular (a profusion of panel-piercing arrows, a hell’s mouth filled with penises), “The Great Tamer” is less potent in substance than impressive in orchestration and execution. The 10 performers are expert puppeteers of themselves. Sometimes dressed in black with one part exposed, they combine into a single misshapen body. When that body explodes and each part crawls off on its own, much of the wit lies in how openly the trick is done.

Bodies fall apart, bodies are reassembled, as in “Frankenstein” or a vision of heaven. What remains constant here is breath: heard from the people in spacesuits that pass through, nearly seen in the final image of a man trying to keep a piece of foil aloft by blowing on it from underneath.

The Great Tamer

Through Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music;

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