Alejandro Cerrudo’s Review: It Starts Now
October 28, 2021 | The Joyce Theatre – New York City
Alejandro Cerrudo’s It Starts Now premiered at The Joyce Theater on Tuesday, September 28, 2021, and the innovation on the table was as refreshing as reaching for a jacket when feeling the first crisp autumn breeze in all of the evening’s captivating, transcendent, and silky glory.
Cerrudo ventures out as a maverick of performance reality, daring to – literally – shake up the very plane the dancers exist on while exploring the nonlinear nature of time,
“from the suspended moment before a first kiss to the sensation of accelerated time when enjoying the best that life has to offer.”
Cerrudo’s first evening-length premiere as an independent choreographer was chosen to be second on the lineup of The Joyce’s return to live performances for their fall season, and anticipation of a return to the stage lured spectators to pile up around the corner of 19th street to eagerly spill into the theater with bated breath.
Spotted in the audience included principal dancers from American Ballet Theater Cassandra Trenary and Daniil Simkin, there to support Cerrudo and dancer Ana Lopez, whom they had worked with for a Guggenheim Works in Progress, Falls the Shadow, a visually elaborate light and dance performance Cerrudo choreographed in collaboration with Simkin back in 2017.
With pedigree from Víctor Ullate Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater 2, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, as well as works commissioned by Wendy Whelan’s Restless Creature and Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Spaniard choreographer’s career-altering premiere did not fall short of expectations.
The immaculately precise and physics-defying technique of the dancers was stunningly liquid and the production is a visual masterpiece, but from Cerrudo’s reputation, I expected nothing less. What kept the audience on their toes was the teasing with the unpredictability of eye-popping surprises bursting from Charlie Chaplin-esque bowler hats and moments of simplicity which stunned the room into sharp stillness.
As audience members were filing into the auditorium, the red velvet curtains rose to reveal an empty stage with a piece of dance Marley lifted from a downstage corner and curled into a spiral on center stage.
As the house lights went dark and the performance began, a male dancer entered to lift the downstage corner of the Marley and sprint. The Marley took on an unnatural form, dramatically rippling over the dancer’s head. The bulky spiral centerstage spun out to reveal a dancer dressed in a bowler hat, and the audience exhaled sharply with awe and some surprised laughter.
The house plunged into another abrupt blackout.
Interpreting this shocking opening through the theme of time, it was perhaps a way that Cerrudo was pointing towards the concept in regards to the fact that the performance had begun the instant the audience engaged with the space, before we ever even considered a concept of a “beginning”. I was personally impressed by the ability of the dancer to remain so still smuggled underneath that Marley for such a duration.
The following ten minutes were utterly captivating, yet strikingly simple: a series of rapid vignettes and blackouts formed with dancers emerging from backlit darkness manipulating soft blue lights which dictated the audience’s attention to a dancer’s bent ankle, a silhouetted form, the nape of a neck.
The vignettes accumulated to transition to a man dressed in a bowler hat, a kilt, and deep purple socks emerging from the darkness into a pool of light aggressively downstage center where he proceeded to perform a three-minute solo in which he morphed into a crude shape leaning back with barely noticeable yet consistently percussive robotic shifts, his hand shielding his face from the audience’s gaze.
This subtlety did, indeed, seem to make time suspend, but in a way which every hair on the back of my neck was standing on edge with a heightened awareness of each detail in the room. The minimalism left me with no choice but to sit in stillness absorbing the lyrics on loop phrased against the lilting guitar strums,
“It’s your young voice that keeps me holding onto my dull life… my dull life… my dull life…”
A female walks downstage center to interrupt his solo by lifting the man’s bowler hat and as she kisses him, purple flower petals erupt from inside the hat and billow out onto the stage as the man joins a second male dancer in a fierce and athletic duet, his purple socks complimenting the petals and his counter part’s green socks offering just enough contrast to shift the narrative forward.
However, Cerrudo’s choice that was even bolder than opening the evening with a 3-minute solo in near-stillness was following it up with a technically complex duet in unison. As a dancer myself, I could generously attribute it to opening night jitters, but any time extensive unison phrases were executed by the cast, if a mover was even slightly off, it snapped me out of the alternate universe of perfection I was so absorbed in.
A vignette where the full cast moved in gravity defying lifts, drags, and spirals felt more in unison even though the dancers were not executing the same movement. Here, it felt as if the dancers were a sort of angelic machine able to anticipate each other’s movements and compliment them harmoniously, the dancer’s momentum causing a purple petal to tastefully arc through the air.
The crowning highlight of the evening was a solo performed by dancer Daniel Rae Srivastava.
A golden light surrounds him as smoke mysteriously begins to ooze from his jacket and bowler hat accompanying a static noise. The instant the infamous words:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an Emperor – that’s not my business”
were uttered, the audience audibly gasped in recognition of perhaps one of the most significant monologues of all time by Charlie Chaplin from The Great Dictator.
Srivastava’s execution of the phrase work broke down not only the fourth, but every wall and the roof of The Joyce with his energy, intention, and technically exhilarating movement. Although I do believe my heart stopped for these five minutes, I couldn’t quite grasp what this extremely historically significant monologue with ties to the Holocaust was doing at the center of the evening’s work.
Other than bringing light into the borrowed aesthetic of Chaplin with the bowler hats and many of the movement qualities, I felt as if it did not tie in as neatly with other thematic, reoccurring “breadcrumbs” sprinkled in. The music set behind the monologue was quite cinematic, and the powerful and emotional choreography brought the arc of the evening’s climax too soon. The intense yet lyrical duets and ensembles that followed were beautiful, but I felt as if I would have appreciated a few of them more if the crowning moment had been delayed a few vignettes later.
As a small costuming note, I appreciated the gender neutral and shifting kilts, tops, and pants, although in the final duet, Ana Lopez dances topless along with a topless Srivastava. It was a powerful choice, but having it happen right at the end of the evening was too much too late for me.
A woman exposing her breasts is a very sacred, powerful, and vulnerable action, that should be normalized on stage more often: my qualm with the decision was not that it happened, but rather that making that choice only once for a short duet at the end, yet again, felt inconsistent with other costuming “breadcrumbs” we’d seen through the evening such as the jackets, kilts, and socks.
If it was meant to compliment the section where Srivastava undressed on stage to perform a solo, I feel as that would have been communicated more effectively through giving Lopez a similar featured spotlight as Srivastava was given.
All of the dancers’ execution of the choreography was absolute perfection: even compared to the most delicate performance of Giselle, I have never witnessed dancers moving in complete silence and as smooth as silk. I was particularly struck by dancer Robert Rubama, as every time they entered the stage, I couldn’t help but have my eyes glued to them as they exuded the most radiant energy.
Through the evening, I continued to catch myself analyzing the implied relationships, sometimes sexual, other times primal, between the dancers.
Why is dance, why are these exact relationships we were witnessing, the mediums Cerrudo chose to discuss the abstract concept of time?
I began to string together a personal theory through the motif of the blue lights. Performance is a form of an ultimatum dictating how an audience spends their time. We have the agency to choose to be anywhere at any moment, but surrendering our will to a performance demands our attention and controls our thoughts.
In the final moments of the piece, as a performer shook the Marley from a downstage corner creating a surreal ripple effect around the dancers, I sat in awe of the genius use of a conventional space. As I attempted to fathom how this was technically possible, I finally remembered that about twenty minutes earlier a silhouetted dancer had subtly and slowly untaped the Marley downstage, perhaps yet another way Cerrudo cleverly inserted his voice as if to play with the cause and effect of an action not occurring sequentially in time.
As the piece ended where it began, the dancer rolled back up inside the Marley on an empty stage, Cerrudo and the cast was greeted with an enthusiastic and immediate standing ovation.
Discussion of the performance with my plus one continued through the duration of our dinner: he had noticed a sound of wood creaking and sand filling in which reminded him of a coffin, a sound which I had not picked up on. He noticed it not quite at the end of the piece, but close to the section where Srivastava danced with his bare skin underneath the bowler hats projecting blue lights, that evoked a sensation of rebirth for both of us.
I decided two things: the first, in response to the creaking noises, that it could potentially be yet another layer tucked into the masterpiece echoing the cyclical yet non-linear nature of the performance and order of life; the second, the fact that I didn’t pick up on this detail that was so central to another person’s interpretation of the choreography means that I could re-watch It Starts Now many times over and would never have the same experience with it.
For Cerrudo to produce such a luxuriously rich and intellectually complex work with infinite interpretations within a harmonious 65 minutes means this isn’t the last we’re seeing of his full length works.
I declare to run, don’t walk, to catch the show at The Joyce before October 3rd, as the rise of Cerrudo’s spellbinding full-evening repertoire of choreography is starting now.
Featured Photo for this review of Alejandro Cerrudo’s It Starts Now © Grace Kathryn Landefeld, courtesy of The Joyce Theater
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