Few artists have gotten as much mileage out of a bad relationship as Constanza Macras. The Berlin-based choreographer's rocking postmodern ode to the breakup, "Back to the Present," ended its three-night, sold out run at Dance Theater Workshop this weekend — which is a shame, since it's exactly the kind of show that generates wildfire word-of-mouth. Just ask the crowd crammed up against the ticket window on Saturday night, desperate for seats.
The title, "Back to the Present," signals the piece's obsession — how the recently-dumped seesaw back and forth between memory (with boyfriend) and right-this-minute life (without boyfriend). But as it turns out, the title is also a nod to the movie "Back to the Future" and its entire era of cheap '80s pop culture, which Ms. Macras and friends gleefully exploit throughout the evening. In "Back to the Present," angst coasts on a wave of fun.
The piece's distinctive black humor is captured by short films that play intermittently throughout the show, accompanied by a weird Latin lounge remix of the Beatles' "Yesterday." In one, a lonely girl at an amusement park stumbles into slapstick victimhood. She gets plowed over by two lovers racing to embrace. While others win big stuffed bears, she wins a tiny one, which she promptly drop-kicks. The camera finds her bawling, and ripping the stuffing out of an oversized bear. Then, suddenly, she's beaming, caressing a giant stuffed moose — until the moose starts screaming for help. A group of miscreants smear snacks on her; she consoles herself by eating the cotton candy out of her hair.
Everywhere Ms. Macras's characters go, there's pain. But somehow their pain is both heartfelt and really, really funny.
The amusement park video is just one of a hundred rapid-fire sequences that form the chaotic "Back to the Present," a mélange of video, dance, skits, and onstage rock music. The dancers also act, sing, and move furniture. Props fly on and off stage — stuffed animals, a ladder, instruments, wigs, chairs. Costumes change frequently, and pieces of the set (a doorframe, a couch) are in constant flux — except for the raised platform running along the back wall, which contains a wall of dressing rooms.
If you can picture a 10-minute sequence including a rock ballad, a guy on one roller skate, a striptease involving a flute and a neck brace, Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," and an inflatable sheep — which is only about half the inventory, by the way — you're well on your way to imagining the dizzying anarchy of "Back to the Present."
The production made its debut in 2004 in an abandoned Berlin department store, and it's been said that it captures a kind of trashy bohemian aesthetic whose present worldwide headquarters is Berlin. Here, the 12-member cast speaks English, which works just fine, given the fact that Ms. Macras and her company, called Dorky Park, are thoroughly international. The Argentine-born Ms. Macras even studied in New York, at the Merce Cunningham studio and at Movement Research — her training comes out in her strong attachment to both movement (there is real dancing here) and its layers of meaning.
Bohemian trappings aside, the central relationship is the one between humor and pain. In one sequence, the dancers sit in a circle, (badly) playing musical instruments. (One strums the dulcimer with a pair of spoons.) Abruptly, they then pick up their cell phones, shouting classic break-up lines into them."I need to focus on myself." "It's not the right time." "There's no chemistry." "Long distance relationships never work." "I wish I could be the person that you want." "I still like you as a person."
There are dozens of these lines, all so familiar — and so painfully funny — that they feel like definitive proof that all our pain is clichéd. But just as we are recognizing how colossally unoriginal we are, a little red-haired spitfire starts scat-singing. She belts out these crazy, nonsensical notes, getting more and more revved up. The other dancers clear the stage, and still she's stomping around, bellowing. But, life being a constant struggle, a guy in a fur jacket shows up and tries to kiss her. She topples him with a kick, then pounces on him, World Wrestling Federation-style, scat-singing all the way.
It's a brilliant sequence, a pure assertion of ego, and it feels particularly invigorating in this world of continual rejections and stuffed-animal surrogates. To dance, to sing — these are acts that reclaim some (albeit limited) dignity for hapless human beings, like those who hungrily audition for reality TV, insisting they can be anything the producers want.
At one point, a man delivers a monologue about how embarrassing shows like "Back to the Present" are. "Asking people to pay money to watch people fight with stuffed animals?" he says dubiously. "What is this," he deadpans (during a show in which people chew and spit out rice cakes while singing Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer"), "dance therapy?"
Yes, and something more. It's as if, by contact with objects, bodies, and surfaces, this army of the dejected is finding an antidote for its ennui. Could living in a scuzzy group house run amok and soaking your wounds in bad pop culture actually heal a broken heart?
By the time the dancers reach the fullon finale, tossing off their underwear and whacking each other with stuffed animals to live head-banger rock-androll, the cathartic answer is "yes."