‘The Tenant,’ Reimagined by the David Lynch of Dance

‘The Tenant,’ Reimagined by the David Lynch of Dance

The choreographer Arthur Pita has made something of a career of depicting extreme mental states through dance. He has been called the David Lynch of dance for his interpretation of the strange, the over-the-top, and the intense.

And so it seems natural that he was intrigued by the central question of “The Tenant,” Roland Topor’s lean 1964 novel: “At what precise moment does an individual cease to be the person he — and everyone else — believes himself to be?”

The book depicts the final days of a Parisian Everyman, Trelkovsky, whose identity begins to dissolve into that of his apartment’s former resident, a woman named Simone who took her own life. The transformation is both mental and physical.

“Dance can explore the surreal space of the subconscious,” Mr. Pita said on a recent Skype call. “You can tell the story with a gesture.”

That’s just what he has done with “The Tenant,” an expressionistic dance play — part drama, part semiabstract movement — that is to have its world premiere on Tuesday at the Joyce Theater. His Trelkovsky is James Whiteside, a principal dancer at American Ballet Theater known for his own shape-shifting.

[Read about Mr. Whiteside’s other performing selves — pop singer, drag queen.]

There are strong parallels to Mr. Pita’s best-known work, “The Metamorphosis,” which came to the Joyce in 2013. That one was based on Kafka’s novella about a man who discovers one morning that he now resides in the body of an insect. “They’re both transformation tragedies, really,” he said.

Mr. Pita, 46, was speaking from Hamburg, where he’s working on choreography for the new “Charlie’s Angels” movie. (He lives in London.) He said the fact that Trelkovsky’s breakdown involves the way he perceives his own gender — at one point, he even imagines what it would feel like to be pregnant — both is and isn’t the point.

“If we’d done the piece 20 years ago, it would have been much more shocking,” he said. But as he sees it, the crisis in “The Tenant” is less about gender than about the merging of two people, Trelkovsky and the dead Simone. “The transformation delights him,” Mr. Pita said, “but only because he is getting closer to feeling what she felt and being relieved of the pain of being himself.”

Mr. Whiteside, 34, is joined onstage by Cassandra Trenary, also of Ballet Theater, as Simone; and the dancer and model Kibrea Carmichael, who plays a conglomeration of several characters from the book.

There was something about the story, Mr. Whiteside said recently over coffee, that spoke directly to his own experience. “I understand the idea of having many people living inside you,” he said. “Something I’ve thought about for ages is, ‘Who am I choosing to be?’”

That should come as no surprise to those who know Mr. Whiteside’s résumé. Alongside being a principal at Ballet Theater, he has other performing lives — as the techno-pop rapper JbDubs and as a member of the Dairy Queens, a group of drag artists who perform at clubs. “It’s a complete departure from A.B.T.,” he said, “and that’s really important for me.”

His participation in “The Tenant,” too, is driven by a desire to break out of the conventional ballet mold. Two years ago, Mr. Whiteside approached Linda Shelton, the executive director of the Joyce, about producing a show; she introduced him to Mr. Pita, and the two met for coffee. (The project is funded by the Joyce Theater Foundation.) Mr. Pita described the meeting: “James said: ‘I’d like to do something with jazz. I’d like there to be a murder horror story. I definitely want there to be drag in it. And I would like these five people to choreograph it. You can direct the whole thing.’ I was thinking, wow, this sounds like a Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas experience.”

Instead, Mr. Pita proposed “The Tenant,” which he had been obsessed with since seeing Roman Polanski’s 1976 movie adaptation about 10 years ago, and then reading the book. Sitting across from Mr. Whiteside, he said he knew this dancer was the right man for the part: “I was like, let’s actually do something that will go somewhere darker.”

They developed the piece, which includes passages of hard-driving, thrashing movement as well as an acrobatically sexual pas de deux, over a five-week residency this summer. Much of the choreography came out of improvisation exercises, which Mr. Pita would then edit.

He moved the story, which is set in a dreary postwar world, to the near future, to add a shimmer of technology-induced anxiety. (It’s still set in Paris, and includes a few phrases in French.) “I want it to feel like a space you don’t want to live in,” Mr. Pita said, “almost removed from human contact.”

In the show’s pivotal scene, depicting Trelkovsky’s breakdown, he becomes convinced that he is turning into Simone, the former tenant. He undresses and stares at himself in the mirror, and sees a woman. At the time of our conversation, Mr. Whiteside had not yet bared it all in rehearsal. (The show comes with a warning about nudity and the depiction of sexual activity and self-harm.)

“It’s a challenge,” Mr. Whiteside said of this and other extremely intimate moments in the play. “Of course I’m uncomfortable. To bare myself in this way, while telling a story, is going to be really strange and exhilarating.”

But he and Mr. Pita agree that it’s important not to be afraid to really go there. “It’s 2018 and I think we have to,” Mr. Pita said. For Mr. Whiteside, it’s personal. As he puts it: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so transformed before in a role.”

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