The European Dream Festival was a welcome hiccup to New York City’s circadian rhythm. Twenty-three of our city’s prime cultural venues played host to cutting-edge work from twenty-three European countries. Betontac’s Wrestling Dostoyevsky, presented by Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, was a prime example of why this festival is a dream come true.
Betontac (Slovenian for Concrete Dance) was founded in 1990 by Matjaz Pograjc amid the country’s growing revolution and subsequent independence from Yugoslavia. To say that this company, like much of the dance-theater creeping out of Central Europe, is infused with a war-torn sensibility for haunting imagery would be an understatement. They exude a brooding visual poetry that American theater can only ever imitate, and imitate badly. So for Betontac, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a doomsday-marriage made in heaven.
Over a dozen lamps shrouded in vintage blouses warm the atmosphere for a cast of six wiry and compelling performers to sweep across a crest of sepia-toned paranoia. A tale of megolomania, murder, and guilt are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the performers’ bodies. While Crime and Punishment as a literary event is an excavation into psychological depths, Betontac treats this work as a purely kinesthetic phenomenon. Dostoyevsky’s beautiful prose lives in their bones and musculature more than their minds, and quite surprisingly the English translation lives proficiently in their mouths as well. Yet the strength of the piece is the company’s commitment to action. Their physicality has the gritty taste of apocalypse. Branco Jordan and Primoz Bezjak engage in a violent testosterone-fueled duet that pit the performers somewhere between a feuding bout of contact improv and a schoolyard brawl: hands clutching face, fingers yanking hair, bodies careening to the floor and rebounding at a hundred miles an hour.
The show goes limp, though, when it employs overused theatrical motifs: a lyrical rape-scene, pop-inspired group numbers, and a sequence where the performers run around the stage aimlessly as if they were lost. However, these sufferings are counter-balanced by the troupe’s interspersed, if awkward, audience interactions. They beckon us to act as lighting operators. They treat us to fresh gingerbread cookies. They plead for donations with an outstretched hat and puppy-dog eyes, much of the audience obliging with dollar bills and coins (the money would not be returned).
The piece ends with the audience turning off the lamplights, a performer softly utters, “Please. Thank you. Please. Thank you.” Yet despite these niceties, Betontac pile-drives its way through Dostoyevsky’s text with a production that is anything but well mannered.
Mathew Sandoval is a performance writer, practicioner, and philosopher; he is also a graduate student at NYU.
Mathew Sandoval is a performance writer, practitioner, and philosopher.