Imagine a standard, sterile hospital room. From behind a closet, an arm squirms out, followed by the rest of the body—a man with squiggly movements who prowls around and crawls under the bed. Immediately the implicit death in the setting has become visible, physical, but still metaphorical, in a way. The man who suggests death is a dancer.
“Last Quarter”, that Yaa Samar! Dance Theater premiered Thursday at the Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, is a dance work, choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Samar Haddad King. But it is also a play with poetic text by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who also directs the 65-minute production. The unusually deft combination of dance and verbal theater magnifies the impact of what may sound like a cliché: a profound meditation on life and death.
At the center is a patient, played by the experienced Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour. He and a woman who appears to be his wife (Yukari Osaka) look stunned as they enter the din of the hospital. Dancers in scrubs hop around and gesture officially, doing a stylized version of the unfathomable activity any patient might recognize.
The stylization brings out the absurdity, and as Natour receives plant-bearing guests, the physical comedy continues. Two visitors who may be his grown children bicker over the proximity of his bed. Later, the drug he has given seems to induce hallucinations. A friend (the nimble Mohammed Smahneh, who also plays the snake-like figure in the beginning) seems to break free, his body parts all going in different directions.
But the stakes remain high, as confirmed when Natour – who does almost all the talking, in Arabic, with English surtitles clearly projected onto the back wall – talks about when his doctor gave him his diagnosis.
His condition is incurable. Unnamed, it sounds like cancer: “the same force that created life” has now “gone wild”. Zuabi’s lyrics and Natour’s understated demeanor give the disease a terrible beauty: “My cells divide and divide and divide.”
This blend of beauty and terrible truth is the power of the lyrics, which is even more influenced by everyday details, such as when Natour lists ‘Things You Will Do After I’m Gone’. Earlier he tells the boy story of buying a fish in a plastic bag. On the way home, bullies grab the bag and throw it at each other. “I could see my fish swimming peacefully in the air,” he says, before putting the bag down and watching the fish’s gills open and close and go silent—his first understanding of death.
Death, of course, is all around him in the hospital. The production reminds us of this when dancers with IV bags emerge during his fishing tale. His room opens onto a corridor at the back, and the occasional orderly one drives by with a body on a stretcher.
And then there’s the dirt. It first appears as the food he is fed, a quirk that you may not notice at first. But soon dirt is spilling everywhere, despite his wife’s desperate efforts to clean it up or employees’ semi-comedic cleaning routines (after Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” mixed into an effective electronic score by King.) as a theatrical metaphor. , the dirt is not subtle. It’s strong.
The sprawl of grime brings to mind the character of Natour who helped bury his grandmother when he was 15. He remembers seeing her not as the old woman she had become, but as the desirable girl she once was, a thought he elaborates by shoveling dirt on a dancer who embodies feminine allure. After burying his grandmother, he says, he went behind the house with his girlfriend, undressed, and fell to the floor with her “over and over and over again.”
The repetition of those words reflects the cells that “divide and divide and divide,” the power that will kill him. It is the “swirl of life” that will fill the void he leaves behind, a force that shapes King’s choreography in a whirl of dancers. The inextricable link between life and death is what “Last Ward” understands. Also the connection between word and dance.
Until May 12 in Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; gibneydance.org