Even victims of circumstance have choices. That’s the realization that choreographer and dancer Jessi Knight dramatizes in “Eurydice Descended,” an evening-length, dance theater work that’s two parts hip-hop and house music ritual and one part autobiography.
The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the fabled musician nearly recovers his wood nymph wife from the underworld through the beauty of his song before dooming her to live there forever, has several versions as well as parallels in ancient cultures across Asia and South and Central America. But across these tellings, the Eurydice character isn’t much more than a narrative obligation.
She’s more than just a name and a gown to Knight, however.
Knight and her sister Christina, who founded knightworks dance theater together, suddenly lost their father to a heart attack in 1999, and have been through turbulent years since. They had been shaping a performance around this shared history for the last several years, but it lacked narrative focus. When Christina had a dream about the City of the Dead, they connected with Eurydice’s situation — having to deal with omnipresent death and an ambivalent Orpheus. And, especially, having to move forward through it all with as much real grace as could be mustered.
Knight’s feminist retelling of the myth focuses on Eurydice’s transformative reactions to her situation. “Eurydice Descended” centers around an extended, cathartic solo by Knight as the nymph. Discarded by the careless Orpheus, she summons determination from within her shoulders and hips in syncopated gyration to a dark samba dirge.
But the energy that she generates from out of herself slams into unchangeable reality: she’s stuck in the underworld and has to depend upon unreliable Orpheus for any chance of getting out. She’s empowered — but not enabled — to resolve this conflict. Knight expresses these loggerheads as a torturous fury, underscored by a sound collage soundtrack that establishes an undermined groove.
Student dancers from North Carolina Central University, NC State University and Fayetteville Technical Community College comprise a muscular cast around Knight. Many of them are members of the Koffee Dance Company, whose director Avis Hatcher-Puzzo also dances in the performance. NCCU student Travis Simmons performs the role of Mr. Death (Hades) and FTCC student Daniel Rivera dances Orpheus. Three men comprise a drag chorus, injecting some humor while providing a gender foil for Orpheus, the one character who doesn’t actually belong in the underworld.
Haitian and African group movement looks great on this cast, especially when they’re clustered in close quarters around the principals. When passages change over into club movement, the dancers pick up the groove and switch from an interchangeable chorus role to that of an individual.
This changeover represents Eurydice’s conflicted dynamic. Knight strives for her not only to exist, but to be the protagonist in a story with narrative turns that she cannot change.
knightworks dance theater’s “Eurydice Descended”
Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
Cordoba Center for the Arts, 923 Franklin Street, Durham
$10 in advance, $12 at the door