Death rituals: Adam Barruch Dance brings the blood sacrifice in a striking new Sweeney Todd

From left, Adam Barruch, Jodi McFadden and William D. Popp will open tonight in the Adam Barruch Dance production at the Lobero Theatre. David Bazemore photos
From left, Adam Barruch, Jodi McFadden and William D. Popp will open tonight in the Adam Barruch Dance production at the Lobero Theatre.
David Bazemore photos

Adam Barruch is on to something that might be new in both the world of theater and the world of dance. Mr. Barruch’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is not a dance interpretation of the musical. Neither is it Mr. Sondheim’s musical with extra dance numbers. Sitting in on the rehearsals at the Lobero Theatre – Diane Vapnek and her DANCEworks secured the space as a gift for his residency – it’s hard to say what Mr. Barruch’s “Todd” will finally become until tonight’s premiere.

William D. Popp plays Sweeney Todd, yet he’s often working alongside the other dancers singing about himself in the third person. These are concepts, not characters, to be possessed by at will. There’s something primal about it, like Mr. Barruch has gone back to druidic times, thinking more of blood sacrifice, and less dreadful about human meat pies.

“I like this idea of an occult feel to the show,” he agrees. “It’s so dark and there is this great emphasis on death and obsession and sexuality. There’s a great deal of sexuality in the show, whether its expressed or not.”

Mr. Barruch has stripped down his Sweeney Todd to the barest of essentials. “We took away a lot of the scenery and a lot of the props so that we would have to rely on the body. And it became even more corporeal than I thought it would be. I thought we’d have projections and seats, or maybe fabric, but as we were working, we didn’t have that. I just started working with what I do have and that’s the bodies.”

Even the straight razors, for which one would think any production of the demon barber would need, are gone – dancers are now the extension of the weapon. For blood, Mr. Barruch is using red pigment powder, which will create clouds and handprints and, well, once again we are back to rituals. Mr. Barruch is tapping into the wellspring of what is means to be human, in the darkest sense.

This blend of theater and dance makes sense when one looks at his history. As a child, he was an actor in theater – he has a production of “Sweeney Todd” on his resume – but went into dance, and found his expression there even though at the same time he was uneasy about his new discipline’s rules. He was used to the flexibility offered the actor in the delivery of lines, even the improvisational state of delivery, as long as the character rang true. There was no space for that in the machinery of movement in contemporary dance, he said.

All the better then, to get this opportunity to create in the space where the performance will happen. Most choreographers do not get this. Works are born in rehearsal rooms, then refitted close to the premiere. Ideas get compromised or rethought. In the Lobero space, his dancers are loving it, as they are allowed to use the entire space, from stage edge to the back brick wall, painted black.

“I feel people are more adventurous in a space like this,” he says. “And me too. I feel more free to play with the walls, and in a theater, there is a history of people performing and that imprint exists. I think that theaters are wonderfully haunted.”

This Sweeney Todd started as a YouTube video, a solo work he filmed of himself dancing to “The Worst Meat Pies in London,” a sketch of a nebulous idea that he knew could be something bigger, a dancing out of a desire to combine his dance world with the world of the theater. The video link found its way to Mr. Sondheim himself, who prompted a meeting with the young choreographer. Mr. Barruch asked for the rights to continue to produce it. “That started my relationship with . . . his lawyer, mostly,” he laughs.

Mr. Barruch just had to wait for the right time, the right space, and the right amount of money to fully work on his vision, and DANCEworks gave him that opportunity.

“I think Sondheim was extremely generous to research this,” he says. “Because I don’t think he fully understood what I wanted to do with it either!”

During rehearsals, Mr. Barruch plays shadow to William D. Popp’s Sweeney, standing in front, back to him, showing the movement. Mr. Barruch is all curves and bendy like a noodle, whereas Mr. Popp is all muscle, athletic. Yet they match. Mr. Barruch, however, is standing right at the lip of the Lobero stage, almost curling his toes around it. He’s gazing out into the empty seats, one step away from a fall, and he’s loving it. He’s literally living this moment on the edge, ready for what ever comes next.

Adam Barruch Dance: An Exploration of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”
When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido
Cost: $12-$65
Information: 963-0761, www.lobero.com

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