“Dmitri in the Dark” put the spotlight on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 6 in G Major, performing it once in the dark, and then again after intermission with two actors and a trio of circus performers. The concept, from director Amy Meyer and producers Jessica Cooper and Alyssa Lawson, was ingenious yet simple, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why it has not been done more often. Playing the same piece twice—first one way, then another—puts the emphasis on the music, meaning it does not recede into accompaniment, as it would if circus and music were presented together the first time. A whole concert series in this format could be a creative success, pairing chamber music with theatrical, dance, acrobatic, or even film interpretations.
Saturday night’s show, the second of two at Boston University’s Dance Theater, suggested this potential, but did not entirely fulfill it, held back by technical limitations and a few confusing dramatic choices.
The theater’s acoustics clearly warranted amplification of the quartet, but it was not done kindly: six rows back, the PA covered any remnant of natural sound, obliterating blend and dynamic range, and artificial reverb added a harsh electric echo. The quartet—violinists Alenka Donovan and Subaiou Zhang, violist Jessica Cooper, and cellist Alyssa Lawson—played together tightly, but much of their expressivity and beauty of tone were lost through the setup.
The ostensible darkness was also not quite what it might have been—billed as “nearly complete darkness,” the first half unfolded in something more like a strong moonlight, with the quartet performing in full view illuminated by stand lights. The effect was atmospheric, but nothing like the sensory deprivation experience that had been hinted at. A screen in front of the quartet or even a performance from the wings would have taken us farther out of the familiar.
At intermission, the convivial audience (with quite a number of young children along) were served Russian dumplings and pickles. Then the theater filled again for take two. In the second take, each of the quartet’s movements was paired with a different act: first and last for the actors, the second for contortionist and aerialist Rachel Barringer, and the third for the aerial silks duo of Leah Abel and Molly Baechtold.
The middle movements proved the most dramatically interesting, suggesting a connection between the acrobats’ physical risks (working literally without a net) and the vulnerability of musical expression. There were some sublime meetings of movement and score: Barringer reaching up to a hanging hoop and then ascending, and a sudden fluttering of Abel and Baechtold’s red silk stay in the memory.
The actors were a different story. A pajama-clad man and woman, with the man wearing Shostakovich’s iconic glasses, worked in clumsy, dance-like pantomime. The act bounced wildly between inscrutability and broad literalism, with writhing, trembling, and forced goose-stepping in the finale. Meyer’s direction often seemed to conflate Shostakovich’s biography with musical meaning—there is a connection between the two, but they’re not equivalent, and more clarity was needed in mediating the difference. The actors also lingered into the circus acts, becoming a distracting presence, with the woman bafflingly brushing her hair with a violin bow during Barringer’s act, and the man staring with mock anxiety as Abel and Baechtold suspended themselves from the ceiling, as if the audience needed an onstage analog to tell them what to feel.
Not all the details worked, but the concept proved itself, and on the balance “Dmitri in the Dark” provided a unique and provocative evening. Above all, the creators should be credited for an imaginative, multidisciplinary format that illuminated the music—I left with a deeper understanding of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 6 than I would have from a concert alone.
Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer based in Boston.