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Knowledge may be power. But in Belladonna, a “Rappaccini’s Daughter”-inspired dance piece from Adam Barruch and Chelsea Bonosky, too much power can be toxic. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, in which a serious young scholar’s love for the titular daughter, Beatrice, is complicated by her propensity for promenading around a garden of poisonous plants (and taking on some of their more venomous characteristics), Belladonna strips down the saga into its fundamental dichotomies: civilization/nature, male/female, lover/beloved.
Stripped is an apt term, perhaps, given the structure of the afternoon at the 92nd Street Y. The Stripped/Undressed series is at once performance and presentation: over the first half of the performance, Barruch and Bonosky — clad in basic black rehearsal clothing — discuss their inspirations in making the piece, unpacking each gesture. They show us how a series of images — “snake,” “knowledge” — find their way into the vocabulary of movement: into a series of gestures that, ellided, start to form the backbone of a dance. It’s an illuminating and welcome part of the event as a whole: despite the seemingly primal nature of dance, its complex physical language doesn’t always translate for a spectator — and the Stripped portion of the afternoon allows for fascinating insight into how a piece like Belladonna comes to be.
The second half of the show, which features Belladonna ‘dressed’ in its entirety, was initially somewhat jarring, given the expectations engendered by Stripped/Dressed’s setup. Belladonna, with its minimalist appraoch to costume and lighting, often felt ‘”stripped” even as a fully-performed piece: a sense not ameliorated by the slightly awkward feel of the 92nd St Y’s upstairs stage. But both Bonosky and Barruch — consummate dancers capable of the greatest physical subtlety even in the most dramatic or ecstastic of throes — made the most of the space’s limitations: at one point, the pair jumps between the downstage ‘floor’ and the elevated stage proper: simultaneously opening up the playing space and creating an unsettling — and thrilling — feel of theatrical transgression.
If there is a weakness to Belladonna, it is in the lack of contrast between Barruch and Bonosky. For a piece so structured around dichotomies, Barruch and Bonosky appeared less as opposing forces and more as complementary ones: a directorial choice that made increasing sense as the two characters began to “merge” — a concept discussed in the opening presentation — but dissipated some of Belladonna’s potential early tension. Often, the most powerful moments in Belladonna were those moments of stillness: images (the opening and closing set-pieces among them, both of which are too striking to spoil) in which the difference between our two characters becomes all the clearer.
Still, Belladonna — with its eerie, viscerally arresting music and sensationally talented performers — proves an exciting reimagining of a classic tale. As part of the Stripped/Undressed series, it’s a valuable look into how one haunting story finds its feet.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Dr TJ Eckleburg Review, Guernica, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency of New York; her first novel is currently on submission.