American choreographer Stephen Petronio is a fan of the brooding vocals and lush instrumentation of Nick Cave. Underland, set to a series of his favourite Cave songs, sometimes teeters on the sublime, but regularly topples into the merely banal.
Petronio is a leg man, with a liking for lean-limbed kicks
It looks great though. Petronio is a leg man, with a liking for lean-limbed kicks, and Tara Subkoff’s costumes, ranging from ripped goth bodices to spiky scarlet tutus and sexy shorts, flatter both the movement and the dancers. Mike Daly’s projected film images are sometimes gratuitous but always striking: washes of rain, a molten sun slowly eclipsed, lightbulbs exploding into shards.
The relentlessly energetic choreography works best when it echoes this mysterious imagery. In The Carny, the dancers’ groupings gather and billow like the mushroom cloud projected behind them; in Wild World the women generate a destructive, splintering force like breaking glass. It’s less successful when it follows the score too closely. Repeating rhythms and refrains may accumulate intensity in the music, but in the choreography they seem formulaic.
It’s worse when it tries to match Cave’s portentous poetry. A groping line-up of four dancers looks like a schoolboy fantasy of costume-drama naughtiness. A blatantly horny duet for a man and a woman in scarlet gets close to the hoarse and dirty thrust of Stagger Lee, but the tension is lost when Petronio simply has them snog in a dark corner.
Things get seriously overblown as the dancers flail and kick to lyrics about weeping children and Christ on the cross, until the final dirge of Death Is Not the End, a rhyme of such gloomy bedsit banality it must surely be ironic. But Petronio plays it straight, with the 16 dancers like serried ranks of angels in diaphanous white robes, though still showing a lot of leg. Petronio presses his choreography close to the music; more distance would have lent more credibility.