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 âThe Tenant,â Roland Toporâs lean 1964 novel: âAt what precise moment does an individual cease to be the person he â and everyone else â believes himself to be?â
The book depicts the final days of a Parisian Everyman, Trelkovsky, whose identity begins to dissolve into that of his apartmentâs former resident, a woman named Simone who took her own life. The transformation is both mental and physical.
âDance can explore the surreal space of the subconscious,â Mr. Pita said on a recent Skype call. âYou can tell the story with a gesture.â
Thatâs just what he has done with âThe Tenant,â an expressionistic dance play â part drama, part semiabstract movement â 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. Whitesideâs other performing selves â pop singer, drag queen.]
There are strong parallels to Mr. Pitaâs best-known work, âThe Metamorphosis,â which came to the Joyce in 2013. That one was based on Kafkaâs novella about a man who discovers one morning that he now resides in the body of an insect. âTheyâre both transformation tragedies, really,â he said.
Mr. Pita, 46, was speaking from Hamburg, where heâs working on choreography for the new âCharlieâs Angelsâ movie. (He lives in London.) He said the fact that Trelkovskyâs breakdown involves the way he perceives his own gender â at one point, he even imagines what it would feel like to be pregnant â both is and isnât the point.
âIf weâd done the piece 20 years ago, it would have been much more shocking,â he said. But as he sees it, the crisis in âThe Tenantâ is less about gender than about the merging of two people, Trelkovsky and the dead Simone. âThe transformation delights him,â Mr. Pita said, âbut only because he is getting closer to feeling what she felt and being relieved of the pain of being himself.â
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. âI understand the idea of having many people living inside you,â he said. âSomething Iâve thought about for ages is, âWho am I choosing to be?ââ
That should come as no surprise to those who know Mr. Whitesideâs rÃ©sumÃ©. Alongside being a principal at Ballet Theater, he has other performing lives â as the techno-pop rapper JbDubs and as a member of the Dairy Queens, a group of drag artists who perform at clubs. âItâs a complete departure from A.B.T.,â he said, âand thatâs really important for me.â
His participation in âThe Tenant,â 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: âJames said: âIâd like to do something with jazz. Iâd 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.â I was thinking, wow, this sounds like a Cirque du Soleil, Las Vegas experience.â
Instead, Mr. Pita proposed âThe Tenant,â which he had been obsessed with since seeing Roman Polanskiâs 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: âI was like, letâs actually do something that will go somewhere darker.â
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. (Itâs still set in Paris, and includes a few phrases in French.) âI want it to feel like a space you donât want to live in,â Mr. Pita said, âalmost removed from human contact.â
In the showâs pivotal scene, depicting Trelkovskyâs 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.)
âItâs a challenge,â Mr. Whiteside said of this and other extremely intimate moments in the play. âOf course Iâm uncomfortable. To bare myself in this way, while telling a story, is going to be really strange and exhilarating.â
But he and Mr. Pita agree that itâs important not to be afraid to really go there. âItâs 2018 and I think we have to,â Mr. Pita said. For Mr. Whiteside, itâs personal. As he puts it: âI donât think Iâve ever felt so transformed before in a role.â