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By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods
DURHAM, NC — It’s not the first time that spiders have wound up in a dance. The tarantella, that literal Italian dance craze of the 15th century, originated from a belief that its moves cured the venomous bite of the tarantula. Nineteenth-century heartthrob Lola Montez achieved notoriety through her signature “Spider Dance,” while Leo Staats’s “The Spider’s Feast” won Parisian hearts in 1913.
But “Tantra Aranea,” Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken’s erotically charged new duet for Pilobolus Dance Theater, uses the mating behaviors of orb-weaving spiders as the unlikely lens for revisioning elements of Hindu spiritual practice and Japanese mythology.
Stay with us here. In this new American Dance Festival commission, which premiered in North Carolina on Thursday night at Page Auditorium, Pilobolus once again looks to the natural realm for insights on the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in that: Over the centuries, agenda-laden readings of the natural world have been used to justify a number of curious institutions.
But it is telling — and disappointing — that where the original Hindu chroniclers of Shiva and Shakti’s greatest hits envisioned transcendence through sexual union in the Kama Sutra, Barnett and Wolken’s arachnophilic take on that text ultimately finds one thing: the very high price of satisfaction.
That is, if you’re a guy.
“Tantra Aranea” invokes that tired canard, the monstrous feminine, in a world where men can’t trust women or sexuality. Why? Because maneaters only decloset after orgasm.
How useful. And how very original.
The result negates the Indian sacred text, in what at points seems an unintentional exploration of male erotophobia.
Though both Angelina Avallone’s costume for dancer Josie Coyoc and the initial moments of Anwar Brahim’s guitar accompaniment seem almost Castillian, the physical dialects here soon place matters in the sub-continent.
The gracefully beckoning hand gestures in Matt Kent’s initial entreaties to Coyoc seem directly taken from sacred Indian paintings of the idealized god and lover, Krishna. The resulting love-play of the two is tantric and sexually frank; a vivid, libidinous, steamy celebration of heterosexual pursuit, capture and imaginative physical recombinations.
But the briefest of fates awaits the male after sexual union in the spider world. Here it’s not Shakti the consort who mates with the love god — it’s Kali, the destroyer, who is rarely met without cost.
Kent and Coyoc arouse us, first with playfulness and then with passion, as Barnett and Wolken give the pleasures of the flesh their full moment in arresting choreography.
But Nirvana’s price is steep in this natural — but less than perfect — world. And the endgame of “Tantra Aranea” leaves entirely open the question of its worth — along with the choreographers’ attitudes towards women.
We’ll warrant that the recombination of Hindu myth with amateur arachnology is novel enough. But the end result here — soft-core porn, tastefully served, with a misogynous twist — is really anything but.
Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. He has previously written for Backstage, InTheater, and CitySearch.com.