Everything about Nejla Yatkin’s newest dance is bold: It addresses challenging subject matter through movement that is daring in construction and assured in its execution.
Saturday night’s performance of “Oasis: Everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to dance” at Dance Place in Northeast Washington was billed as a “preview” of the work, suggesting that the door is still open for tweaks and edits. And that’s a good thing, because this dance needs a little fine-tuning.
The piece opens with a duet for a male and female dancer. He is wearing only flesh-colored briefs, she is in a flesh-colored leotard, and both don thin, black blindfolds. Their movement is lush and sensory, guided apparently by instinct, not reason. This section’s meaning continues to crystallize as the dance goes on to depict a host of atrocities and injustices taking place in the Middle East. The humanity and beauty of the opener seem like more and more of a pipe dream.
When dealing with emotional topics such as civil rights and exploitation, the line between frank intensity and gratuitousness is thin: In “Oasis,” Yatkin largely airs on the right side of it, and the effect is haunting. In a scene about rape, men forcefully and repeatedly pull black cloths over the women’s faces and then drag, spin and toss them about the stage. It’s jarring and disturbing but doesn’t rely on shock value.
But one section about torture narrowly missed the mark. Hooded henchmen used ropes to bind, stretch and yank their victim into submission to a sound score composed only of cracking whips and anguished grunting and whimpering. Perhaps the scene would have worked better if it came later in the dance and served as its climax, but it registered as over the top in its current placement.
Other sections, such as an ironic fashion show displaying different styles of hijabs, dragged on after the point was made.
Still, the strokes of brilliance in this dance far outweigh its missteps. Dancer Shay Bares is pitch-perfect in his portrayal of an abused boy. In his cold stare and writhing movement, we see someone who has become numb to the brutal oppression he faces.
In another solo danced by Yatkin, she pores over a stack of books, moving with increasing abandon as she leafs through them. It’s a compelling way of showing how in a society that is subject to censorship, information can set someone free.