Like eating raw limes, improvised modern dance is an idiosyncratic, acquired taste. Does the idea of dancers randomly gesturing during works with violent themes sound a bit acerbic — not to mention eccentric? Then skip “The Chemistry of Lime Trees,” by Daniel Burkholder. If you can’t get enough experimental dance theater, go to Flashpoint, but get ready to duck.
Bodies, citrus fruit, grass seed and shards of wood all go flying during the performance, which is not to say this is a high-energy show. Part 1, called “She arrived, alone,” opens with Burkholder methodically sowing grass seed on the dance floor. The back story for the piece is a historical quote, printed in the program, describing the plight of a young Russian girl who arrived at Ellis Island in 1910. Her arranged fiance shows up and rejects her. Immigration officials suggest they go through with the marriage, and, as Burkholder continues the story, they do, but not happily.
Andrea Burkholder (Daniel’s wife, playing the part of his character’s wife) comes onstage carrying nine wooden Russian dolls and dragging a rope. By the end of the work, she is tethered to her husband, struggling to get away. In between, the pair perform a funereally paced Russian folk dance (choreographed by Katya Denisova) and kick up grass seed as they flick up their toes. These are striking — if disturbing — scenes. There are also improvised interludes, performed to a scratchy score by Jonathan Matis, but they distract from the story and resemble a slow-motion game of charades.
“She arrived, alone” is more carefully constructed than the second part of “Lime Trees,” with its interwoven tales about lovers in war-torn Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, World War I and citrus horticulture. The lovers suck a few limes onstage, then throw them around to symbolize civil discord. War is also depicted by Daniel Burkholder as he bludgeons a metal chair with a stake until the wood shatters, and splinters go flying at the audience like shards of a broken baseball bat.
Cover your eyes, although some of the lively partnering between Burkholder and Stephanie Yezek Jolivet, who plays his wife in Part 2, is worth watching. Susan Oetgen serves as onstage narrator and vocalist, singing and reciting historical snippets lifted from Wikipedia. The work feels both overstuffed and undercooked. When “Lime Trees” was over, a confused audience of 13 sat in the theater until the house manager opened the door and ushered them out. Presumably she, or someone else at Flashpoint, had to clean up the pulpy mess.
Ritzell is a freelance writer.
The Chemistry of Lime Trees
continues Thursday through Sunday at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab.