“Ugly,” choreographed by Arena Dances leader Mathew Janczewski, with a new score by electronic-music star Morton Subotnik, is an ambitious piece. One hour long, with no intermission, “Ugly” screams big work, and not just because it’s a Walker commission. “Ugly” has a big theme—our obsession with set standards of beauty—which Janczewski develops in three sections, one of Elizabethan restraint and courtly moves, one of disco abandon and internet-dating frenzy, and one of Edenic near-nudity; elaborate costumes (the work of Angie Vo) and inventive sets (by Daniel Spencer) accompany each change. Unfortunately, “Ugly” isn’t as big as its desire. The show is certainly watchable, but it has few big moments, few chances for the audience to get caught up in the work.
“Ugly” begins well. The Elizabethan section, all brocade and bone, is icily orderly, but with the promise of passion in a few angry lifts and rucked-up taffeta skirts. Vo’s stiffly rustling costumes and Subotnik’s tinkly faux-baroque score add to the mood. Most importantly, Janczewski gives us characters here: a fierce and frustrated woman, a distant man, and a second woman, the light twin of the first or perhaps her soul. But this fascinating setup is discarded as Janczewski moves into the disco section.
“Ugly” is the first dance I’ve seen take on the seedy side of the internet-dating scene. With its degrading requests, its deceitful self-descriptions, and its porno approach to the body, internet sex provides an interesting counterpoint to the usual purity and purposefulness of the dancer’s body. Janczewski works this contrast. But he underlines what he’s trying to do a bit too much; the dance becomes too literal. The craft of the dance breaks down in this section as well. In trying to give us something ugly to look at, something perverse, Janczewski gets only as far as stilted, awkward, stamping moves—neither easy on the eyes nor fascinatingly wrong. A few solos and a strong male duet bring focus, but Janczewski relies mostly on his ensemble—an unfortunate choice, since the ensemble work feels vague and atmospheric.
This same fault harms the last section of the piece as well. Give Janczewski one or two brilliant dancers and he’s riveting. All his choreography for Amy Behm-Thomson (who always appears solo) is evocative, mysterious, and stellar. But give Janczewski an ensemble and he becomes dull, plot-oriented without the specificity necessary to carry a plot. (Some of the blame for this may belong to the dancers, few of whom have Behm-Thomson’s assured presence.) There are some nice moments in the last section. While three dancers sit on squares of turf, three other dancers leap into nasty sideways falls; later, one dancer starts the same jump, but lands softly, bruiselessly. Altogether, though, too little is carried forward from the first two sections to give Janczewski much to do or the audience much to look for in this last section.
Known for beautiful, floating, soulful dance, Janczewski plays against type in “Ugly,” trying to push his art in new directions. It’s a smart and brave idea. But rather than pushing his talent, Janczewski seems to have suppressed it. He can do a lot better than this; I’ve seen great work from him in the past, and I expect more in the future. This coming May Janczewski will remount an earlier work, “waterBRIDGE,” at the Southern Theater. With the pressure of “Ugly” gone, perhaps Janczewski will show us what he can do.
"Ugly" runs through Saturday at the Walker.
For more on "Ugly," read Lightsey Darst's preview of the work from the October issue of Mpls.St.Paul.