Seeing “Back to the Present” at Dance Theater Workshop felt like one of those rare opportunities to experience a seminal work in the era of its conception. Even though New York is three years behind the premiere of this extraordinary piece—originally presented over four hours in a former Berlin department store—its embodiment of global cultural currents still seems timely.
Created by Constanza Macras and her troupe Dorky Park, “Back to the Present” is a frenetic series of sketches collapsing a 21st century 20-something middle-class day-in-the-life into one big mashup. The twelve triple threats of Dorky Park flip through the channels of contemporary culture in this self-reflexive polyglot hybrid of dance, music, theater, and film, English, German, Spanish tap, modern, breakdance, and contact improvisation.
The action begins with a short solo in silence, sinuous and misshapen, but there’s not really a whole lot of dancing after that, and when there is, it’s either being made fun of, or to show how boring conformity is.
Quickly delivered one line reasons for breaking up, confessional, and egotistic soliloquys, banging, chair throwing, pratfalls, door slamming, flying stuffed animals, sexuality, and, ultimately, nakedness are some of the elements that make up this absurd, anarchic reflection of a society obsessed with 15 minutes of anything. Music is central to the two-and-a half hour piece, and much of it is played live by the cast on electric guitar, drum and other percussion. A Spanish version of “Yesterday” repeats in video sequences that show individual performers in despair finding some resolution in stuffed animals. (Poor) Kate Bush serves to underscore the dated look of—and to skewer, worthily, for laughs—a female modern dance duet with Easter egg colored leotards, tulle, and all. Rock, pop, classical, and experimental music are folded in, the latter in the form of the self-mocking Dorky Park Ensemble.
In this second parody of concert dance, the cast, having re-entered seriously, dressed in black, sit with their assorted orchestral instruments, and produce a Cageian symphony for a solo dancer, equally sever and affected. This morphs into a scat singing duet, and then a frightening/funny scat screaming solo by formerly sweet Shirley Temple-esque Diane Busutill—while she beats on Nir De-Volff, nearly twice her size. Her descent into hysterical madness is complete; and she takes the audience down with her.
All of this unfolds on a stage with a second-tier modular set designed by Patrice Wisniewski that has three doorways and three other full length openings covered by pull shades and/or curtains. Two detachable rectangular frames with sliding plexiglass doors are locked into place on this upper level, and used to showcase musicians and naked torsos; later they are moved together and, with blue lighting and a fishy-acting bunch of the dorks, it projects aquarium. A wooden stepped bar is moved around downstage left, with performers falling down, behind, and over it throughout the evening. And a platform with a waiting drumset looming in the limited flyspace upstage right ultimately has its moment.
It’s hard not to think of Pina Bausch, whose tanzteatr works are familiar fare to New Yorkers from her prolific appearances at BAM’s Next Wave festival.
Macras has tapped the same network, albeit into a younger, less grandiose vein, more along the axis of a global digital consciousness of copied, recycled, and re-mediated everything. The cast who collaborate on the writing come from all over the E.U., and from Australia, Mexico, and Canada; the choreographer is originally from Argentina. “Back to the Present” seemed to reflect that; it didn’t transmit as “European” but as international—not anti-American, but as an impressive manifestation of Berlin’s artistic melting pot.