Taking Its First Step Without Wheeldon, Morphoses Brings Luca Veggetti’s Bacchae to the Joyce Theater

This year marks the start of a new chapter for Morphoses, the company founded in 2007 by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Lourdes Lopez. After Wheeldon stepped down last year, Lopez opted for a new collaborative model: She would invite a new resident artistic director each year to choreograph a work on her dancers. The first of these guest directors is Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti, whose Bacchae — a 50-minute abstraction of Greek drama — was given its world premiere by Morphoses at the Joyce Theater this week. The cast of 11 should be commended for their focused performances, but Veggetti’s choreography mostly bores, and the staging is pretentious and overwrought. It makes the myth less mythic.

For a company founded on ballet, Morphoses dances surprisingly little of it in Bacchae. There are few classical steps — an occasional pirouette or arabesque — but the ensemble choreography is drawn largely from martial arts. The arms are used often and fluidly. The dancing is often undeniably attractive — at times even mesmerizing, especially when the cast seamlessly moves in and out of patterned formations — but it becomes repetitive and says little. (Frances Chiaverina fares better in her solo, manipulating time and making every strange step matter. Her subversive duet with Adrian Danchig-Waring, in which she turns and carries him, also holds an odd allure.) At other times, the choreography becomes downright grating, such as when four women swing bamboo rods into the air and slam them into the stage. (The resulting sound was so sharp and invasive, I kept involuntarily flinching and closing my eyes.)

More puzzling, there are few indications that The Bacchae — the Euridipean tragedy about Pentheus’ death at the hands of his mother, Agave, whom Dionysus drove mad — has inspired the choreography. (That could be forgiven, naturally, if there were evidence of any real inspiration.) Martha Graham reportedly once told Paul Taylor, “The abstraction of an orange is orange juice.” Watching Bacchae, we struggle to taste the orange. Not until the final seconds, when Chiaverina (presumably Pentheus) steps ominously toward the others (the Bacchic worshipers) and the stages goes black, are we able to make a clear connection.

If Bacchae‘s choreography is bland and vague, its staging is what sinks it. Some of it’s empty affect: At the center of the stage sits an illuminated platform, and black curtains line the sides of the stage, shimmering as if in a breeze. Why? Because it’s pretty, I suppose. Veggetti attempts to incorporate text, as well, but it only confuses the drama further and adds another layer of pretension. The dancers take turns standing in the theater’s aisles to recite cryptic combinations of words (“mountain … seduction”), and an invisible woman recites an equally cryptic and pointless phrases with the aim of frightening us. (Instead, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to the voiceover in “Thriller.”)

More than ever, I regret not having seen Morphoses in its earlier seasons, when it was performing Wheeldon’s choreography at New York City Center. It’s understandable — and admirable — for the company to take risks when embarking on a new journey without Wheeldon. However, I sincerely hope that the company’s next risk — under incoming resident artistic director Pontus Lidberg — pays off. As much for its sake as for ours.