Even those audience members lucky enough to have attended the recent open rehearsals for Tabula Rasa Dance Theater’s newest production, Oedipus Rex, were not prepared for the transcendent beauty of the full performance, on stage starting last night at New York Live Arts.
In its most ambitious program to date, the four-year-old contemporary dance company uses futuristic technology — including wearable lasers, A.I. (a scene-stealing robotic dog), and an original electronic score — while simultaneously reaching back in time to ancient Greece for its source material.
The story, based on Sophocles’s 2600-year-old tragedy, unfolds rapidly and clearly, a result of founder and artistic director Felipe Escalante’s visceral, pristine choreography and masterful staging. Ever since its 2018 inception, TRDT has been lauded for its voluptuous, propulsive style, grounded in ballet, modern, and flamenco dance techniques and the close observation of everyday human gestures and animal locomotion. Articulating all components of the face and body — eyeballs and fingertips included — Escalante has established a new form of movement that is at once supremely disturbing and sublimely gorgeous.
Oedipus Rex is at its most electrifying whenever Escalante, who performs the title role, appears on stage, which, fortunately, is often. A fiendish dancer, with a consummate understanding of form and function, Escalante is equally adept at convulsing his body into paroxysmic spasms as he is at softening it into sensuous undulations. Like Atlas bearing the globe, he buckles under the weight of a mirrored disco ball balanced on his shoulders. But at other moments he soars skyward, limbs spread-eagled, swiveling in the air before landing back on earth soundlessly. Especially when dancing in ritualistic formation with his 16-person corps, Escalante repeatedly evokes the primordial, mysterious origins of dance.
The inventive but still faithful updating of the Oedipus myth takes place in 2020. As the COVID pandemic wreaks havoc on the planet, Oedipus, proprietor of the Thebes Palace nightclub, frantically searches for vital financial information that could save his business and his workers (the equivalent here of a Greek chorus). But these missing records were the property of the club’s previous owner, Laios, now deceased. Though valiant, Oedipus’s quest for the truth leads only to the terrible fulfillment of an age-old curse.
In Escalante’s retelling, the blind oracle Teiresias is a DJ, hired for the night by Oedipus’s brother-in-law Creon (danced majestically by the seasoned Jonathan Luján). Teiresias (Robert Valdez) is a wrenching study of an outcast — a searching, stumbling, unheeded harbinger of destruction and despair. The Sphynx, whose riddle Oedipus famously solved, makes a malevolent off-script cameo. A doubled presence, the monster (embodied by Anica Bottom) is shadowed by a small, supple doppelganger (Rachel Heinkel), representing the trail of blood she leaves behind her.
Escalante has added one further fateful twist to this already convoluted tale of mistaken identities. Not only does Oedipus unwittingly take as his wife his own mother, Jacosta (the haunting Graceanne Pierce), he also unknowingly sexually assaults his own daughter, Antigone, an ingenue role acrobatically enacted by Electra Handelsman.
“Oedipus, like many of us, is searching for truths,” explains Escalante, who also conceived the show’s minimal props and myriad costumes. “And in this search, we suffer. After his discoveries, Oedipus ascends to a less material and ignorant world.” To learn exactly how, in the Thebes Palace nightclub, poetic justice is served, see Oedipus Rex now.
September 27 – October 2 at New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street
Tues-Fri at 7:30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
To purchase tickets, 63 cents to $55.00, visit: