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Review: Making Eloquent Theater From Bleak Facts

How to convert acts of mass horror into live performance? In spoken theater, the oral testimony of victims, witnesses, even perpetrators, has been adapted into memorable docudramas about war crimes, genocide and other forms of social and political violence. The appalling nature of the events described has often been all the more effective when the actors speak the words in a contrastingly low-key manner.

But how to adapt those horrors into dance or musical theater, genres seemingly not ready-made for such issues. In “Unwanted,” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the choreographer and musician Dorothée Munyaneza, who witnessed genocide in Rwanda as a child, presents the verbatim accounts of women in several countries (Congo, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and others) who experienced militarized rape and its consequences.

Ms. Munyaneza makes the experience elaborately layered. Some words are spoken, others are chanted or sung. Nonverbal music is played. Dancing and a range of physical actions express multiple aspects of trauma. At several points, technology is used to recycle music or words after a few seconds; the repetition becomes psychologically expressive of thoughts, memories and feelings that keep returning to haunt. You see just two women, Ms. Munyaneza and Holland Andrews; you also hear electronic music by Alain Mahé.


Holland Andrews and Ms. Munyaneza.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The range of idioms employed here veers between the cool objectivity of spoken docudrama and the intensely lyrical extremes of quasi-operatic mad scenes. Though madness in drama can include falsification, its main point (from Euripides and Shakespeare through Romantic opera to strands of modern drama) is to show how harsh experience causes derangement; it flicks and fragments the mind into flights and shards that reveal the effect of trauma on thought. There’s a passage here in which Ms. Andrews’s vocal cadenzas feel like a modern version of a Romantic mad scene: A high soprano melodic line floats, showing the mind’s escape into a separate zone, and then, suddenly, rasping chest tones show a more violent explosion.

“Unwanted” is primarily more music than dance. At times, the singing comes close to the intense outpouring of the blues. Sequences of chanting show a different way to deal with bleak facts: quietly intoning things that happened as part of history. Women who saw their mothers and friends killed were raped by those very killers; then they gave birth to children. One woman who has come to regard her rapist as a hyena. She looks at his baby in her arms and sees only a hyena: Should she kill it?

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