'Last Ward' Review: Ashes to Ashes, Dirt to Dirt

Imagine a standard, sterile hospital room. Behind a cupboard, an arm sticks out, followed by the rest of the body – a man with serpenti...

Imagine a standard, sterile hospital room. Behind a cupboard, an arm sticks out, followed by the rest of the body – a man with serpentine movements that weaves and slips under the bed. Immediately, the death implicit in the setting became visible, corporeal, though still metaphorical, in a particular way. The man suggesting death is a dancer.

“Last Room”, which Yaa Samar! dance theater Premiering Thursday at The Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, is a dance work, with choreography by the company’s artistic director, Samar Haddad King. But it’s also a play, with a poetic text by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who also directs the 65-minute production. The singularly skilful combination of dance and verbal theater heightens the impact of what might sound like a cliché: a deep meditation on life and death.

In the center is a patient, played by accomplished Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour. He and a woman who appears to be his wife (Yukari Osaka) look bewildered as they walk into the hubbub of the hospital. The smocked dancers hop and gesticulate informally, doing a stylized version of the inscrutable activity that any patient would recognize.

The stylization brings out the absurdity, and while Natour entertains plant-bearing guests, the physical comedy continues. Two visitors who could be her adult children argue over the proximity of her bed. Later, the drug he administered appears to cause hallucinations. A friend (the lithe Mohammed Smahneh, who also plays the serpentine figure at the start) appears to come undone, his body parts all going in different directions.

But the stakes remain high, as confirmed by Natour – who speaks almost everything, in Arabic, with English surtitles clearly projected on the back wall – recounts the moment his doctor gave him his diagnosis.

His condition is incurable. Unnamed, it sounds like a cancer: “the same power that created life” now “gone wild.” Zuabi’s text and Natour’s sober performance give the disease a terrible beauty: “My cells divide and divide and divide.

This mixture of beauty and horrible truth is the power of the text, made more touching by everyday details, like when Natour lists “Things You Will Do After I’m Gone”. Earlier, he tells his childhood 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 calmly through the air,” he says, before the bag is dropped and he watches as the fish’s gills open and close and come to rest – his first understanding of death.

Death is all around him in the hospital, of course. The production reminds us when dancers wielding IV bags emerge during his fish story. His bedroom opens into a hallway at the back, and periodically an orderly passes by with a body on a stretcher.

And then there is the dirt. He first appears as the food he gave, an oddity you might not initially notice. But soon, the dirt is spreading everywhere, despite his wife’s desperate efforts to put everything away or the staff members’ semi-comic cleaning routines (to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” mixed into an effective electronic score by King) . As a theatrical metaphor, dirt is not subtle. It’s strong.

The proliferation of dirt evokes a memory of Natour’s character helping to bury his grandmother when he was 15. He remembers thinking of her not as the old woman she had become but as the desirable girl she once was, a thought he acts on by shoveling dirt. on a dancer embodying the feminine allure. After burying his grandmother, he said, he went behind the house with his girlfriend, undressed and fell to the ground with her “again and again and again”.

The repetition of these words echoes the cells that “divide and divide and divide”, the force that will kill him. It is the “whirlwind of life” that will fill the void it leaves, a force that King’s choreography gives form to a whirlwind of dancers. The inextricable link between life and death is what “Last Ward” understands. The link between words and dance, too.

Last room

Until May 12 at Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; gibneydance.org

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Newsrust - US Top News: 'Last Ward' Review: Ashes to Ashes, Dirt to Dirt
'Last Ward' Review: Ashes to Ashes, Dirt to Dirt
Newsrust - US Top News
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