Silas Riener performing "Nox"

Silas Riener performing “Nox” (all photos by Robbie Campbell)

The program for Rashaun Mitchell’s Nox contains a lone explanatory note: “When my brother died I made an epitaph for him in the form of a book. This is a replica of it, as close as we could get.” The words belong to the poet Anne Carson, and they come from the back cover of her book, also called Nox, published in 2010. They make you wonder: Is what we’re about to see a replica of that book, in the form of a dance, as close as the artists could get? A replica of a replica?

As it turns out, Nox, which had its New York premiere at Danspace Project on Thursday, is nothing so simple. Whereas “replica” might suggest an erosion of the original — a photocopy of a photocopy — this hour-long meditation brings Carson’s ideas into sharp, distilled focus.

A duet for two formidable dancers — Mitchell and his choreographic collaborator, Silas Riener — Nox unfurls in the shadowy reaches of St. Mark’s Church. The part-live, part-recorded score interlaces Carson’s plaintive recitations of her own text with Benjamin Miller’s ominous anti-melodies. In the dancers’ craning, careening, stretching, striving, and intertwining — in their slipping into and out of each other’s grasps — movement emerges as an apt metaphor for what Carson evokes in words: a groping-in-the-dark for memory and history; the incomprehensibility of loss; the impossibility of piecing together a life that has ended, or that, despite being over, refuses to end.

A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end. Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light.

Whether or not you’ve experienced Nox, the book — which is as much a visual phenomenon as a verbal one — before seeing Nox, the dance, its structure seems significant to what happens onstage. A scrapbook-like collection of photographs, hand-drawn etchings, and printed words, it takes the form of one very long, accordion-folded page, housed in a box. To open that box is to unleash what feel like infinite reams, as unwieldy as the matter of death itself.

Nox, the dance, tumbles forth with a similar unwieldiness — though one that’s never out of the artists’ control. This quality first arrives via Miller’s music, a live acoustic-electronic mix, which accompanies Mitchell in a kind of prologue, as he paces along the perimeter of the sanctuary. His gait is deliberate, measured, against what sounds like a twisted, tremulous tangle of strings. Taking a seat on the floor, facing the back wall and the balcony that lines it, Mitchell waits. The light (designed by Davison Scandrett) intensifies, streaming in from various doorways, though you wouldn’t quite call it a flood.

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in "Nox"

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in “Nox”

Through one of those doorways bursts Riener, sprinting across the balcony, a terror in contrast to Mitchell’s repose. He disappears as suddenly as he entered, then reappears, on our level now, destined for a far corner, an unforgiving receptacle for the forward thrust of his body. His momentum halted, replaced by forces seemingly outside his control, he slumps and topples across the carpeted risers, coils his limbs around pillars, splays across walls. His legs collapse from under him in his attempts to move immovable edifices.

Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it.

Carson’s voice has entered our consciousness. She has begun translating and evaluating, word by word, “Catullus 101,” the Roman poet’s elegy to his own brother. It’s a methodical retort to the irrational, a rummaging for meaning in the meaningless:

We want other people to have a center, a history, an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say, This is what he did and here’s why. It forms a lock against oblivion. Does it?

Carson is there in the flesh, too. She and her longtime collaborator Robert Currie help to light the space with two wheeled slide projectors. Mitchell, alone for a moment, drifts in and out of the trapezoid of light cast by one of the bulbs, working himself into a swift, rhythmical spin that dizzies even the watcher. If Riener is the deceased, the haunting, Mitchell could be the haunted, in search of “an account that makes sense,” sometimes with clarity, more often in darkness. (“Nox” is Latin for “night.”)

At one point, the dancers back themselves against the rear wall, each lit by a square of harsh white light from one projector. As they whip their bodies from shape to shape, Currie and Carson try to keep up with colored pencils, tracing their transient outlines on a translucent surface. The results, materializing on the wall, look like a jumble of intersecting lines, as wavering as those opening notes, barely approximating the human form.

We learn that Carson was not close to her brother. When she found out he had died, they hadn’t seen each other for many years. Fittingly, we sense both distance and intimacy between the dancers — a prowling both suspicious and sweet. In a recurring motif, they arch their upper spines, leaning back at dangerous inclines. At first, they catch each other; then they don’t, prompting a cascade of reckless crashes to the ground. Yet elsewhere, as when they fold themselves like origami on the smooth wooden floor, they seem to share a brotherly telepathy — or an artistic one, the kind that comes from dancing in the same company for many years. Both of these artists were members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Mitchell for eight years, Riener for just over four. While Cunningham’s technique runs deeply through their bodies, they are mining from it something very much their own.

“Overtakelessness” is a word told me by a philosopher once … that which cannot be got round. Cannot be avoided or seen to the back of. And about which one collects facts — it remains beyond them.

Some literary critics have charged Nox, the book, with responding too clinically, too intellectually, too guardedly to death. Rather than unwieldy, some have seen it as too neat — too nicely stacked-up-wrapped-up in a box. And indeed, it does fold up quite prettily. Nox, the dance, avoids any such tidy packaging. Perhaps movement, with its infamous impermanence, its sometimes maddening open-endedness, provides the perfect foil. Carson, reading a final passage aloud, concludes the performance with a succinct “the end.” But the dancing could continue: the relationship could go further, the pieces could keep on reassembling, finding different ways to interlock. For now, we’ve collected what we will; the rest remains beyond us, perhaps right where we want it to be.

Rashaun Mitchell’s Nox concludes tonight, Saturday, May 12 at Danspace Projects (131 East 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan)

Siobhan Burke writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The New York Times and Dance Magazine, where she is an associate editor.