Dance theater is an ill-defined bastard child of the contemporary stage. Between the narrative impulse to develop longer forms for modern dance and the drive of theater directors to express their vision in terms of pure movement and do away with texts, dance theater was born. From my experience, though, dance theater works much better when the director is a bona-fide choreographer. Dance that adds a heavy dose of "theatrical" elements such as sets, props, and story is more moving than theater that simply subtracts the dialogue.
Ellen Stewart, the creator of the self-described "epic dance theater" work Herakles via Phaedra, is the original "La MaMa" of the eponymous, Off-Off-Broadway experimental theater—the only original Off-Off-Broadway theater that's still around today. Unfortunately, however, she is not a dance choreographer.
The narrative in the first half is fairly clear, the stories more or less familiar: Theseus traces a thread through a labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. Newly crowned king of Thebes, Theseus welcomes Herakles, who has been disgraced and shunned by others. Herakles has killed his own wife and two sons after being tricked by Hera, who envies Zeus for having fathered him. Theseus helps Herakles perform 12 labors for absolution, which range from wrestling a series of wild animals to wrestling a girdle away from the queen of the Amazons.
Without dialogue, however, the latter part of the narrative becomes tedious and difficult to follow—especially if one is not well versed in the Greek sources. Though the program notes contain a helpful—if lengthy—synopsis, it's unlikely that audience members will bother to read along while they're watching the action.
In fact, one may do well to leave at intermission. Once Herakles is absolved of his sins, little dramatic tension is left to resolve. Moreover, the further complications of the plot become difficult to express through song and dance alone.
The choreography lacks the nuance and originality of a real dance piece, and the performers are clearly actors—not dancers. There are a few brief exceptions. In one sequence, a dancer dressed in the mask of the Nemean lion pounces on Herakles to the pounding rhythm of tribal percussion. Herakles somersaults across the lion's back, catches the lion's arm upside down in midair, and then flips the lion across his own back to be felled.
More prevalent, though, are sequences that merely make a gesture toward a dance tradition: flamenco, flappers of the Roaring Twenties, chorus lines, ballet, etc. The "etc." is the telltale sign of a hodgepodge experiment—too many movement styles are attempted, none of them attempted well.
The original score, on the other hand, is powerfully affecting. Here, the wide range of influences works because, musically, they fully embody various traditions to convey a wide array of moods.
During different parts of the evening, we hear freestyle slides on a bluesy electric guitar; long-held notes on a synthesizer that sounds like vibes; operatic recitative; salsa; gongs and chants; the hollow, staccato tapping of woodblocks; otherworldly trills from a bamboo flute; and repetitions of simple harmonic chords that, overlapping, form more complex structures reminiscent of musical scores by Philip Glass or Michael Nyman.
Furthermore, the musicians and singers are competent professionals, though transitioning from song to song was slightly awkward at times since they had to coordinate not only with one another but with a large cast as well.
The spectacle was stunning, however, and often made the show worthwhile to watch even when the dance lagged and the music seemed a bit derivative. At one point, Theseus runs down from a two-story ramp, unfurling a huge banner of tinsel-like streamers that takes over the entire stage, while, behind him, stagehands on skateboards whiz by, sweeping up the trailing strands.
At another point, a huge, parachute-like silk cloth is spread over the entire stage to represent a raging sea as dancers underneath the cloth bob and stretch as they portray tempestuous waves. The lighting design transforms the dull, earth-colored fabric into an iridescent seascape that changes hue from lilac to cerise to wine-dark blue.
The costumes are captivating, too. As the various wild animals, the actors wear gold thongs and elaborate masks, which show African influences. For the Stymphalian Birds, however, bright, oversized marionettes are suspended from puppeteers' hip supports to hover menacingly above Herakles. As with Julie Taymor's costume design for The Lion King, the usually marginalized theatrical element of masks takes center stage and makes an otherwise mediocre show spectacular.
Overall, though, Herakles via Phaedra does not live up to its vision. While the costumes, spectacle, use of the stage area, and music are well orchestrated, the dancing itself fails to demonstrate the same level of complexity and fails to dazzle. Over two hours of poor-quality dancing during a dance theater piece is ultimately too much to take.