Dance takes audience into the darkness

At the ICA, performers in “Bracko’’ (above) and “Nox’’ combined poetry, music, and dance. At the ICA, performers in “Bracko’’ (above) and “Nox’’ combined poetry, music, and dance. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / July 23, 2010

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‘Nox,’’ a collaboration between classicist/poet Anne Carson and choreographer Rashaun Mitchell, engraves itself, in full color, on your brain and cracks open your heart. It’s a meditation on death: how we’ve grappled with that final flickering-out over the course of history, from the Roman poet Catullus, whose elegy for his brother provides the frame of the book that inspired the dance, to ourselves today, as each of us is left behind.

A work in progress, “Nox,’’ along with Carson and Mitchell’s “Bracko’’ (2008), was presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of Contemporary Art as the first installment in the series “Co Lab: Process + Performance,’’ which forges partnerships among musicians, visual artists, poets, and dancers.

“Nox’’ (Latin for “night,’’ and evoking other darknesses) takes you out of this world, and then back into it — bruised but oddly ebullient. That’s because it reverberates with layers, scattering light as in a hologram. It tells the story — in words, music, projected drawings, and movement — of the troubled life and “unexpected’’ death of Carson’s older brother. He’d run away from home to avoid jail, lived under assumed names, and married more than once. The text shuttles between Catullus’s elegy, in Latin, and Carson’s quirky English, slapping definitions of each word in the elegy against her glistening thoughts about her brother’s fate.

Central to Carson’s modus operandi is how she sees translating: She says she has come “to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. . . . Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person. . . .’’ And just as she translates the classics to English, Mitchell, a leading dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, translates her now searing, now plain, now made-up words into movement that bridges past with present.

Choreography here is translation through inhabitation: Mitchell and Silas Riener, also a Cunningham dancer, crawl into the words, the spaces between the words, the rhythm of the lines. Riener as the brother, once a “starry lad,’’ scrabbles against the theater’s glass walls, frantic to escape. They both flop their chests to a side wall, then flip and flop again, while Carson and collaborator Robert Currie scribble under a projector and flash red gashes across their faces. Later, Riener lies supine, and then up against the wall, as Mitchell pumps his chest — a metaphor for the impossibility of our inability to restore life. Only Riener, finally, can inflate/deflate his being on his own.

Astonishingly, the dance and thrumming score, by Ben Miller, on guitar and saxophone, were created each on their own. All the components came together — were “mashed,’’ as Carson mimes after the show by flipping cupped hands as if shaping a burger — just two days before the performance.

Less ambitious than “Nox,’’ “Bracko’’ sprang from Carson’s limpid translations of the Greek writer Sappho. Only fragments of Sappho’s erotic, shuddering verse remain — but that’s a boon in Carson’s eyes. She’s planted brackets where content is missing, and Mitchell’s choreography — traces of pristine circles and walks up a rope — fills them in as Carson and three others ping-pong Sappho’s phrases and the word “bracket’’ among themselves in a sonorous verbal score.

Yet because “Nox’’ closes the show, you leave the ICA breathless, with the last lines of Catullus’s poem echoing over the Charles:

“. . . Accept! soaked with tears of a brother/ and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.’’

Thea Singer can be reached at

ANNE CARSON, poet, and RASHAUN MITCHELL, choreographer Presented by Summer Stages Dance and the Institute of

Contemporary Art

At: ICA, Tuesday night