The dead can’t dance, said Prokofiev, voicing doubts about the ending of his ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” But clearly, he had no idea what he was talking about.
The dead not only danced at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on Friday, they romped, wrestled, played with toys and made love. If the Grim Reaper is anything like his portrayal in two wordless physical-theater works, “The Death of the Marquis de Sade” and “Dante: Light in a Darkness,” I can hardly wait to meet him.
For now, it’s tempting to trust that Mirenka Cechova and Radim Vizvary, founders of the Czech Republic’s Tantehorse Company, have Death pegged. In “Dante,” he’s a ravishing seducer with attention-deficit disorder. Shirtless and wielding a carving knife, Vizvary stalked his prey (Cechova, momentarily comatose) on silent cat feet, while his arms and shoulders rippled like massive wings. It was a swimming, soaring, floating locomotion I’d never seen before, not at all human.
That was true of the whole evening. Cechova and Vizvary, both based in Prague, have backgrounds in ballet, mime, clowning and Japanese butoh dance — in short, they embody a treasury of physically expressive theater arts, and they brought them all to bear in the two brief works. But you couldn’t separate the dancing from the mask technique, the mime from the butoh. With their two amazing, infinitely malleable bodies — oozing like melted rubber one moment, hard-edged and dangerous another — the two performers conjured up a thrilling phantasmagoria. The stage became foreign turf with only the merest echoes of reality.
It was also full of surprises. Once Vizvary, as Death, claims Cechova, he dances with her lifeless form, and it’s creepy and laugh-out-loud funny. She’s a marionette in his hands, her long dancer’s limbs snapping up to meet his as if he’s pulling them by strings. He yanks her onto pointe, makes her spin and twirl. A corpse de ballet! They waltz crazily. Bit by bit you see her rigor mortis thaw, as if she’s remembering something of life.
Then Death gets distracted by a puppet, and his victim exacts her revenge. Lucky for us, she takes a good, long time to do it. It turns out hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned; dead girls don’t like to be jilted. If things were weird before, now it’s a sadistic, sexy horror show, and wonderfully alive.
That’s the great gift of Tantehorse: As stylized, mysterious and preoccupied with death, sex and violence as these creations were, they sizzled with life. The source is the intensity of those finely calibrated bodies. Every shift and gesture holds the eye. In “The Death of the Marquis de Sade,” when Vizvary and Cechova don masks, their arms and hands become so energized, they’re like firecrackers. Emotions fire in every move. Martin Spetilk’s shadowy lights and Matour Hekela’s haunting sound design added much to the depth of feeling.
Cechova last performed here in November, in her tour de force solo about the transgender experience, “S/He Is Nancy Joe.” This program proved her brand of theater — they call it “physical mime theater” — is even more potent with a partner.
at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, at 4 p.m. Sunday.Visit atlasarts.org.