Paradise is gained and lost in the alternately beautiful and obscure “Paradisiacal Rites,” an often-overwhelming, exhausting performance work by the avant-garde company Saint Genet. The three-act piece, making its U.S. premiere at On the Boards through Sunday, is fresh from a well-received run at the Donaufestival in Krems, Austria.
Conceived and directed by Ryan Mitchell, a Cornish graduate and a founder of Saint Genet (as well as an earlier performance troupe from Seattle, Implied Violence). The massive display of intertwined elements in “Rites” — modern dance, installation, live (and loud) music, bits of monologue and drama — has a lot going on at any given moment from stage right to left.
It helps to take everything in at a distance, from an upper row, where one focuses less on the particular and sees instead broad, macrocosmic cycles of action that turn into spiraling, clockwork ritual — the birth of a world At its best, “Rites” yields a dreamy magnificence as various figures pass through a coarse initiation to enter a huge field of golden wheat, already populated by insectile characters.
A sense of rising, primordial rhythms in this new Arcadia proves stirring, though the presence of a figure fiddling with balloons seems obvious, evoking the “goat-footed” Pan-surrogate in e.e. cummings’ most famous poem, “[in Just-].”
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But there’s a sinister undercurrent, too. Mitchell plays one of two men who act like drunken gods, literally spitting life into characters yet stumbling about like cruel louts. This malevolent energy later erupts into a harsh passion play involving sexual humiliation and assault. That confrontational story thread is unfortunately overplayed in the third act, when bathos undercuts “Rites” just as it reaches the sacramental altered-state-of-consciousness Mitchell seeks.
But Saint Genet is about extremes and tempting failure, and the company’s relentless commitment on stage is staggering. John Torres’ lighting, art direction by NKO and sets by Casey Curran are all mammoth operations. Nearly three hours of nonstop dancing — including intermissions — with expansive, hypnotic choreography by Jessie Smith is something to behold. The small army of players is constantly in motion, stripping sets as if in a reverie, performing in the nude, battered and showered in honey and saliva.
At its weakest, “Paradisiacal Rites” doesn’t know when to stop hammering on jejune themes of darkness, misery and pain. But in its moments of magic, splendor and primitive otherworldliness, it excites the mythmaker in us all.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org