To see Mirenka Cechova prowl the stage in “The Death of the Marquis de Sade” is to feel as if you’re watching three performers at once.
Her back is bowed into a “C”-curve so deep that she almost looks deformed, calling to mind the warped beauty of postwar Japan’s butoh. Her sinewy legs dart beneath her with a ballerina’s assured grace and pristine turnout. Her face — morphing from scrunched brow and clenched jaw to obsequious smile — has the exaggerated drama of a mime.
It is a rare performer who has all of these skills in her arsenal, and an even rarer one who can summon them at the same time.
Cechova blends these elements into a singular style she calls “physical mime” that she will bring to the Atlas Performing Arts Center this week when the troupe she co-founded, Tantehorse, makes its Washington debut.
The Czech Republic-based ensemble is scheduled to perform two works from its “Dark Trilogy,” a series of macabre, surrealist duets about the basest aspects of passion, seduction and death. They are the kind of pieces that are not designed to be processed through logic and reason: They bypass those filters to permeate the darkest corners of your subconscious. The emotional response these works elicit is visceral and deep, and yet they leave you feeling as if you couldn’t possibly explain them.
The first, “Dante: Light in a Darkness,” is a portrait of a dysfunctional couple whose ongoing power struggle is revealed in vignettes that vary between flatly disturbing and brilliantly tinged with black humor.
In an early scene, Cechova is clearly in command of her dance partner, Radim Vizvary.
She coquettishly waves a fan at him and hikes up her outlandish skirt, which looks like a soccer net stretched over an invisible hoop skirt. But soon, the tables turn: Vizvary violently tosses Cechova to the ground and forces his body between her legs. As she lies on the floor, he pulls the skirt over her head. In a horrifying instant, the whimsical symbol of feminine wile has been turned into a confining cage.
Cechova said this creepy realm is one that she and Vizvary seem to instinctively return to during the creative process.
“For us it’s something very — I don’t want to say normal. But for us, it’s something that’s very inspirational,” Cechova said.
The work that now stands as the second in the trilogy, “The Death of the Marquis de Sade,” was the first one that Cechova and her collaborators choreographed.
“We didn’t create this piece with the intention of creating a trilogy. We just found the aesthetic so powerful, we decided to continue,” Cechova said.
That aesthetic, Cechova said, was heavily influenced by Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” German expressionist paintings from the 1930s and surrealist movies by Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer.
Death looms large throughout the trilogy, including in a third work, “Virginie: In a Dark Place,” that will not be performed on this program. But in “The Death of the Marquis de Sade,” it seems to constantly surface in the form of a question.
Throughout the work, the audience must ponder whether the protagonists are alive or dead. After Vizvary takes a knife to himself in the opening scene, the rest of the work seems poised to represent his purgatory. But when he later dances with an inanimate marionette, the contrast makes him seem very much alive, if devastatingly lonely.
Cechova’s character is equally mysterious, sometimes haunting the stage like a specter and other times touching or preying on Vizvary with an intensity that suggests she must be more than an apparition.
In both works, don’t look for Tantehorse’s eerie dreamscapes to take precisely the same shape each night. The dances have a firm outline, but Cechova and Vizvary try to let the audience inform how they perform within those contours.
“The movements are more based on the present moment,” Cechova said. “We know actually what the audience should have, what kind of impact they should get.”
In this spontaneous, responsive approach, Cechova said she finds “spiritual release.” But she doesn’t offer any further details about the emotions it unleashes.
“I think we have to somehow keep secrets within ourselves to bring something to the stage that is important,” Cechova said.
Cechova’s artistic background is plainly visible in her proclivities as a dancer and her sensibilities as a performer.
She first came to dance through ballet, studying at a conservatory in Prague beginning at age 11. But by the time she was 19, she had grown bored with ballet’s formality and immersed herself in other performing arts. She trained as a classical mime in the style of Marcel Marceau, and she took up butoh, the Japanese style of modern dance in which performers’ faces and bodies are often painted white and which is typified by grotesque imagery and motifs of desolation and loss.
All of these genres informed Cechova’s dancing, but it was butoh that particularly shaped her approach to choreography and character development.
In butoh, Cechova said, “The performer is getting himself or herself into a state of being that is somehow not led by rational existence. . . . Butoh actually touches, I would say, the deepest state, the deepest emotions.”
Even before Cechova learned to dance, she studied classical piano. Though that instruction instilled a deep sensitivity to classical music, Cechova has found impetus for physical mime in a broad range of musical styles.
The sound score for the “Dark Trilogy” pieces, for example, includes Bach compositions, bird calls, choral songs and throbbing electronica.
“I love to work with contrasts,” Cechova said.
Though it is Tantehorse’s first time performing in Washington, Cechova said the city already holds special significance for her. In 2011, she came to American University on a Fulbright scholarship for lecturing and research and performed as a guest artist with Arlington-based Synetic Theater.
During that time in Washington, “I transformed from artist who knows what she wants to an artist who is totally convinced that the only way to survive in the world is to express my art,” Cechova said.
The work that she created during that period, a solo titled “S/He Is Nancy Joe,” was performed at Flashpoint last year.
Cechova was deeply touched by the reaction to that piece, which explored the experiences of a transgendered individual.
“It was, for me, the most important thing in my life when people are coming after performance to me and saying, ‘This was my story,’ ” Cechova said.
While the “Dark Trilogy” works are topically and aesthetically different from “S/He Is Nancy Joe,” they share a common ambition.
“I want what is happening on the stage [to be] always authentic,” Cechova said. “No masks, no pretending.”
May 31-June 2 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.atlasarts.org.