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Review: Scottish Ballet Plays Dress Up and Dress Down

It’s a strange time to be going to a theater in New York. As you and dozens of others settle into your seats, armrest to armrest, you might ask yourself a question that wouldn’t have crossed your mind a few weeks ago: Should I be here? Or should I be practicing social distancing?

On Tuesday at the Joyce Theater, where Scottish Ballet, visiting from Glasgow, is celebrating its 50th anniversary, I wished I had stayed home almost as soon as I arrived. Even under less ominous circumstances, a night of social isolation would have been preferable to “This Is My Body…,” an uninspiring double bill of contemporary ballets by Sophie Laplane — the company’s resident choreographer — and Angelin Preljocaj.

Ms. Laplane’s “Sibilo,” for four women and four men, encapsulates the program’s title in the most superficial way, showing off the dancers’ stunning technique and muscular physiques but little else. It’s a compilation of cool moves to music — the athletic partnering is the coolest — without any driving sense of purpose.

These moves begin with the full cast onstage, walking away from the audience in two rows, their backs to us: a slow retreat. The men, holding black blazers above their heads, lower the garments onto their bare torsos. These outer layers become props both over- and underused as the dance progresses: constantly manipulated, but to what end? The women, too, play with shedding, eventually abandoning their lavender dresses for shorts and skin-toned bra tops. (Everyone wears socks.)

Is Ms. Laplane trying to say something about our exterior versus authentic selves? Her movement, full of angular limbs and recurring tics — like the men erupting into little quakes, feet planted and chests shuddering — makes the dancers seem more mechanical than human. As they break from a big pack into duets and solos, their physical impulses echo tremors and pulsations in the eclectic score (composed by Alex Menzies), although impulse is not quite the right word: Everything here seems put on from the outside, like clothing, rather than originating from within.

Mr. Preljocaj’s “MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps)” was, at least, more visceral. Created in 2001 for his own company, Ballet Preljocaj, this punishing work for 12 men is inspired by the telling of the Last Supper in the Gospel of St. Mark. It begins in relative tranquillity. Crouched at the front of the stage, one man washes another’s supine body; behind them, eight others lie in what look like bunk beds, two towers of four, shifting between postures of rest and exertion (fetal positions, plank positions). Patrick Riou’s lighting beautifully illuminates these sleeping and stirring figures.

Unstacked, the beds become tables against which the men fling their own and others’ bodies, as images of sacrifice and torture accumulate. While the dancers’ strength and stamina are admirable, Mr. Preljocaj’s scenes of aestheticized violence are less so, more stunt-like than transporting or transgressive. One man chants as two others choke him (and otherwise obstruct his breath); another gets bound, limb by restless limb, in packing tape. To me, this just seemed cruel: people enduring pain for no good reason. Not now, thanks.

Scottish Ballet

Through Sunday at the Jocye Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org

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