Morphoses, Joyce Theater, New York

Euripides’s Bacchae is organised around a startling paradox: Dionysian piety. Honouring the original god of theatre – of satyrs’ play – is not a matter of submitting to religious stricture, the play suggests, but of succumbing to one’s nature and, more largely, to nature itself.

So when Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti began his Bacchae (at the Joyce until Sunday) with a faceless puppet bobbling in the dark – Bacchic worship imagined as wooden obedience – my heart sank. A year after founder Christopher Wheeldon abandoned his troupe, an excited audience had shown up to celebrate the fruits of Morphoses executive director Lourdes Lopez’s plan to have a different choreographer each year create a ballet on her gorgeous dancers. And what does the eager crowd get but dance-drama for dummies?

The hour-long production – with a windy score by Paolo Aralla, a voiceover by a sibyl with a standard-issue sexy-European accent, and sensitive lighting, at least, by Roderick Murray – is thoroughly un-Dionysian. With black curtains walling in the stage and the dancers in beatnik turtlenecks, this Bacchae seems to take place not on untamed mountaintops but in the monochrome cave of Serious Art (circa 1955). Only when the notes Erin Lesser blew through her double contrabass flute billowed the fabric walls did a whisper of wildness enter the scene. Meanwhile, our husky-voiced narrator redacted the mythic tale one echoing word at a time. Truth. Blood. Mire. Death. Help!

The movement was equally contrived and narrow in range. It alternated between suspension – arms hovering like birds of prey, legs in a squat like a samurai about to spring, the gaze down – and release, but neither taken to sufficient extremes. The dance see-sawed between stop and start. Marked by neither joy nor passion, Veggetti’s Bacchae is Apollonian, except without the light.

The choreographer’s strength lies in arranging bodies in space. As some dancers moved, others faced various directions with legs apart like bohemian cowboys and arms hanging hunkily at their sides. The tableaux were invariably attractive. A more static story – Daphne’s life as a tree, say – would have better suited Veggetti.

But if Bacchae was dead on arrival, the audience evinced so much goodwill that Lopez only needs to choose her projects more wisely to secure its devotion.

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