Dance review: In ‘Rocco’ the knockout comes at the end

Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten's US premiere of a boxing-based dance at White Bird takes some time to warm up

The dancers in the ring of "Rocco"/ Laurent Ziegler

The dancers in the ring of “Rocco”/ Laurent Ziegler

Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten have erected a boxing ring on stage at the Newmark Theatre for their US premiere of Rocco, which continues through Saturday night. A lucky chunk of the audience can sit ringside, close enough to catch a spray of sweat or a concession thrown from a usherette tray during the mock intermission. Greco established himself as an uncommonly energetic dancer by the early 90s, attracting the attention of Scholten when he attended one of the choreographer’s workshops in 1995. Greco didn’t believe he could be a choreographer, but soon after he and Scholten began collaborating, they produced not just groundbreaking performances but a manifesto of seven commandments of dance and the body.

Rocco is their newest collaboration, continuing their tradition of experimental, interdisciplinary, highly physical, high-concept works, cut throughout with slapstick humor. Inspired by the 1960 Visconti movie Rocco and His Brothers, the boxing device comes from Rocco’s ambitions and fraught career as a boxer in the film. (The shades of Stallone in his name certainly help with the boxing associations for those of us more familiar with Hollywood than ’60’s Italian cinema.) Rocco and His Brothers also lends the performance its fraternal tension, its themes of pitting one’s body against one’s station, and a heavy influence over the modish soundtrack of the second act of the piece.

The show starts with two of the four dancers staring each other down from opposite corners of the ring, clad only in boxing trunks, while the other two jape in the audience as a sort of combination of hype men, jesters, and Mickey Mouse impersonators (they start the show wearing half-face cartoon mouse masks). The boxers glower at each other and puff on herbal cigarettes, and a sound collage of boxing match noises clangs away while the jesters play-fight each other and try to rile the audience. Their clowning overlaps the beginning of the boxers’ engagement, and amid their frenzy it’s hard not to notice that whoever’s behind the masks has some dance chops. Unfortunately, the rest of the first act doesn’t hit many more high points than the jesters did before they fled the stage to let the boxers do their thing.

The boxer/dancers reach a state of exhaustion in "Rocco"/Gerco de Vroeg

The boxer/dancers reach a state of exhaustion in “Rocco”/Gerco de Vroeg

Greco and Scholten coined the term “extremilism” to describe the “kind of extreme minimalism poised somewhere between the sacred and the profane” that they conjure in their work. The first act seems to lead with this concept, starting the show with a single, narrow spotlight in the middle of the stage that draws the boxers like moths to the proverbial flame. There are some particularly nice moments as they establish their movements and prowl the stage and the combative distance between their bodies. More often than not in the first act, however, the extreme-minimal relationship feels more like a struggle than a balance. The boxing aesthetic and an aggressive, cluttered soundtrack demand many points of reference and interpretation, while the early vocabulary of the dancer’s movements is simple and jittery enough to get lost in the fray. The points when these elements do work together are quite interesting, but the first act seems to lack the foundation it needs to take the risks that it does.

So it is that much more interesting that the second act is very tight indeed, crackling with energy and surprises, and overall so invigorating that it’s possible to forget the drifting first passages of the show entirely. Like a proper boxer’s feint, we discover that the first two dancers were drawing our attention away from where the big hits will come from. The jesters return and remove their mouse ears, the first step of a continuous transformation of their costumes and roles. Their sweat-flinging, erotic, and cagey rivalry crosses so much distance with so much ingenuity that I have no qualms in telling you that they are the actual main attraction; they bring so much dynamism that even if you’re expecting them to turn from mouse-men into boxers you’ll still be surprised.

Rocco, the movie, explores the web of tensions between the many brothers of an Italian family. The dance piece boils it down to the two men in the ring. As Greco points out in his program notes, dance doesn’t require the concrete resolution that boxing match does, allowing for much more complex threads of tension and ambiguity. As the boxing metaphor becomes more established and parseable, the dancers are able to play with it more freely.

Their costume continues to reduce and transform, and there are a few very interesting moments where the gesture of disrobing alters the whole character of the aggression filling the ring. Greco and Scholten’s work clearly runs the smoothest when it is running fast. The energy picks up quickly and never fades, hanging in the air like the first act’s cigarette smoke even when the boxer-dancers retreat to their corners. They alter their moods and styles with amazing speed, mixing jet├ęs with carefully choreographed full-force punches, pivoting almost imperceptibly at times. It creates an exhilirating sort of visual whiplash, but without becoming chaotic or muddy. Fine details are handled deftly in the midst of the fray, like when and how to fling an arc of sweat into the spotlights, or just how one would performatively insert a mouthgard.

Given the confidence and exuberance of the second act, I found myself wondering if the first act was just there to create some quiet before the storm. If so, I think it may have been more effective if it were shorter. Overall, though, Rocco is a hell of a show, crackling with tension and athletic, risky (literally) movement. Be patient with the first act, because by the time Rocco finishes, I guarantee you’ll have seen something new and I bet you’ll be a little out of breath.

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