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Exploring clash of modernity and tradition

Prometheus Dance's "Devil 's Wedding" was inspired by the bestseller "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. (Dennis Stein)

Shots ring out in the darkness, and for what feels like minutes, the theater thrums with the disconcerting sound of mortar fire and engine rumble. But the focus of Prometheus Dance's powerful new "Devil's Wedding" is not the soldiers battling in the heat and dust of some unholy war. It is the women caught in the crossfire, in this case pummeled not by bullets, but by the clash between the ancient religious tenets of fundamentalist Islamic societies and the cultural influences of contemporary life. Inspired by Azar Nafisi's bestseller "Reading Lolita in Tehran," it is a dark, imagistic look at the continual conflict and often suffocating isolation of a harrowing existence.

The seven women are clothed in long black dresses. Large black scarves represent the veil of the traditional burka. As faces disappear behind the veils, the cloth represents the sublimation of the self, the subjugation of the self. In the work's most chilling moments, the scarf is pulled tight, becoming first the hood of the condemned, then the executioner's noose. But unfurled, it becomes a protective panel behind which to hide, a cape swirled with the bravado of a toreador. And as it is removed from each woman's head, it sparks a vigorous dance of momentary abandon, but less of joyous release than untrammeled revolt.

As the women walk in formation, in a slow, deadened pace, there is resistance lurking underneath, ready to break out in legs that kick, arms that thrust, lunges deep into the floor. But just as quickly as one woman's arms reach upward, they are fettered by the others, pulled back in to the safety of acquiescence. Repeatedly they clasp their hands together as if bound or throw them across their eyes, as if they cannot bear to look.

The most visceral sections are the group dances fueled by the pulsating rhythms and keening vocals of the music . Grounded skip steps lead the dancers into lines and circles that suggest the strength of community. But it remains a community whose spirit constantly struggles to break free. In the dim, dungeon-like light, a chain ladder can be seen hanging to the floor, disappearing up into the rafters. But everyone who ascends is gently pulled back down to the sanctuary of the group -- it clearly offers no escape.

Prometheus' fourth annual Memorial Day weekend performances also included the company premiere of "Knowing We Can Never Know," originally choreographed for the Boston Conservatory Dance Theatre in 2002. Restaged for seven women and expertly danced, it is a rather rambling, often elegiac work set to the slightly schizophrenic String Quartet No. 8 of Shostakovich.

Solemn passages down corridors of light or across the lip of the stage are interspersed with moments of urgent freneticism, characterized by frantic runs about the stage and a lot of head flinging. It's a little overdrawn, but visually quite striking, from Linda O'Brien's stunning light design to the horizontal back straps of Marian Bertone's dresses, nicely echoing four tall ladder - back chairs.

The concert's one glimpse of light came with the reprise of the lovely "Dievas Mannu/Full Moon." Set to the atmospheric vocals and electronics of Finnish composer Wimme Saari, it is a gorgeous, beautifully crafted dance -- part tribal ritual, part animalistic congregation -- that evokes the stark white landscape of the Arctic Circle.


Prometheus Dance

Performing "Devil's Wedding "

At: Boston Conservatory Theatre, Saturday night