ARENA Dances: “Ugly” at the Joyce Soho

ARENA dancers in Ugly, photo by Cameron Wittig

On Thursday night, ARENA Dances performed Mathew Janczewski’s Ugly at the Joyce Soho in its New York premiere. This three-part multimedia piece, which was commissioned by Minnesota’s Walker Art Center last fall and included an original score by Morton Subotnick, examines perceptions of beauty and society’s obsession with physical perfection. At the heart of the piece was the body – how it connects with others, how it is displayed in public, how it is judged, and how it copes. Ugly undoubtedly addresses relevant issues, and while ARENA’s dancers are technically sophisticated, the piece did not always vividly convey its themes.

In Baroque: The façade, a frustrated man and woman were courteous as they eyed each other from across a table, and then launched into a crazed duet. The woman seemed limited in movement by her corset, hoop skirt, and neck ruff, which perhaps was an indication of even larger constraints on women. But modern-day clothing appeared in Disco/Technology: False Reveal, the second section of the piece. Three men walked slowly while photographing themselves or others, while a woman videotaped them for a live projection on the scrim. This allowed the audience to view the dancers from multiple perspectives, which was an interesting idea, but the section became far too literal when random words or phrases appeared on the scrim, such as “if not love then”, “hook up”, and “you tell me”. The quartet for two men and two women along with a male duet were kinetic, powerful, and physically demanding. They fearlessly threw each other across the floor and spun in circles while weaving their torsos together. The dancers then shed their clothing while standing in a line and staring out into the audience. Yet, there was so much tension and preparation leading up to this moment, which was only ten or fifteen seconds before a blackout, that it lost its effect.

ARENA dancers in the first section of Ugly, photo by Cameron Wittig

The final section, Nature: Comfortable skin/hope, showed the entire cast in flesh-colored underwear, dancing or laying on fake plots of grass. Gone was the tension of the previous two sections, as the dancers reached the phase of acceptance and happiness about who they are, but it was bland and less impactful than Baroque and Disco/Technology. One of the most perplexing aspects of the piece was the presence of a solo woman in a white dress who mysteriously wove in and out of each phase. Was she a ghost? A narrator? Purity? Moving slowly and fluidly, she was almost always detached from the other dancers but seemed to be guiding them on their journey.

Interactive ensemble choreography is Janzcewski’s forte – and his dancers were stellar – but each section required greater movement distinctions and contrasts to convey changes between each phase. Emotion could have played a role here. Janczewski wrote in the program notes that there is an emotional need to be accepted or liked. I agree, but this was not apparent throughout the piece. Too often the dancers appeared stoic, with the exception being the crazed duet in the baroque section. Perhaps the dancers’ lack of emotion was intentional, suggesting that people withhold their feelings while trying to attain physical perfection and gain acceptance, but seeing their true emotional need might have been more effective and could have enhanced the transitions from one section to the next. Ugly is an admirable work and Janczewski a gifted choreographer. The hour-long piece made a statement, but it could have said even more.

Ugly continues tonight at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM at the Joyce Soho. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (212) 352-3101.

To read more about the sociology of ugliness, check out this relevant NY Times article.

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