Review: Exposing the Heart in a Brutal Dance of Love

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Sometimes it’s hard to feel what you know a choreographer wants you to feel.

In the case of “Chapter 3: The Brutal Journey of the Heart,” there is a lot of purposely awkward positioning of taffy-supple bodies: arched backs, far-flung arms, wide and ever-deepening pliés. This evening-length work, performed by the company L-E-V, dances — and winds — its way around themes related to the anguish that love brings. There is pleasure in the pain.

It helps to know that L-E-V means “heart” in Hebrew. In this final section of a trilogy exploring aspects of love by the company’s artistic directors and founders, Sharon Eyal — formerly a star of Batsheva Dance Company and, for a time, its house choreographer — and Gai Behar, the heart is both muscular and tender. Once the chest is fully released with arms trailing behind the back, the body is a showcase of vulnerability.

But this “Brutal Journey,” making its American premiere at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, is a meandering trek as six dancers display their sensuality with such forcefulness that it slips into parody. Is it trippy? Not really. The choreography aligns itself unabashedly with Gaga, the movement language developed by Batsheva’s longtime artistic director Ohad Naharin; it can be hypnotic, but here it is static.

“Brutal Journey,” which unfolds over an hour to a dreamy soundscape laced with percussion by Ori Lichtik, feels like many knockoffs — of Gaga, of a dance party in a Gaspar Noé film, of a fashion show. The costumes are by Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Christian Dior Couture, who outfits the dancers in tattooed unitards, each with a red heart on the left side of the chest. It’s a bit much.

The program notes include a selection of words by Eyal, including “Silence. Dryness. Emptiness.” There is also a quote from Hanya Yanagihara’s overwrought, at times brutal novel “A Little Life,” which reads, “things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

It’s true that the dancers give off a broken quality in their bodies. The piece, which shifts in intensity along with Alon Cohen’s dusty lighting, tries to create a sense of seamlessness, yet as one part bleeds into the next, the pacing stutters. The curtain opens on a single dancer balancing on demi-pointe with one hand protectively pinned to her chest and the other to her abdomen.

Shifting her hips, she teeters and twists on the tips of her toes, until two others enter from the wings swiping at their throats like feral animals. Eventually more dancers join in; as they take small, mincing steps in unison — spreading out and converging back together — a lyric pokes through the melody: “You are one of those creatures.”

While there is something trance-like about “Brutal Journey,” it never lands in a strange-enough place. The monotony of the movement — especially those arms that twist like weathered branches on a tree — and the repetitive way in which the dance is structured, lends an airless and aimless quality to the performers’ quest for love or, perhaps, attempts to move beyond it.

The contrast of quick feet with slow-motion posturing soon becomes contrived; at one point, with the dancers forming a tableaux, two bend their arms around a third dancer in the center — as if tracing a heart around her. Voguing, or something loosely like it, enters the choreographic picture, but what is it building toward? Just as the dancers’ ferocity seems forced, this “Brutal Journey” feels archaic, a relic of the prepandemic world where performance could more easily exist in a place of commercial flash. (Its premiere took place in September 2019.)

These dancers, wallowing in the pain of love and longing, never break your heart. They’re caught up in sensation, yet no matter how deeply they feel, it doesn’t penetrate past the stage. As the curtain slowly falls, they keep moving — as if lost in a reverie of love.

L-E-V

Through Feb. 27 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

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