Picture a standard, sterile hospital room. From behind a cabinet, an arm snakes out, followed by the rest of the body — a man with serpentine moves who slinks around and creeps under the bed. Immediately, the death implicit in the setting has become visible, corporeal, though still metaphorical, in a particular way. The man suggesting death is a dancer.
“Last Ward,” which Yaa Samar! Dance Theater premiered on Thursday at the Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, is a dance work, with choreography by the company’s artistic director, Samar Haddad King. But it’s a play, too, with poetic text by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who also directs the 65-minute production. The uncommonly deft combination of dance and verbal theater heightens the impact of what might sound like a cliché: a profound meditation on life and death.
At the center is a patient, played by the accomplished Palestinian actor Khalifa Natour. He and a woman who appears to be his wife (Yukari Osaka) look bewildered as they enter the hubbub of the hospital. Dancers in scrubs skip around and gesture officiously, doing a stylized version of the inscrutable activity that any patient might recognize.
The stylization brings out the absurdity, and as Natour receives plant-bearing guests, the physical comedy continues. Two visitors who might be his grown children squabble over proximity to his bed. Later, the medicine he’s given seems to induce hallucinations. A friend (the lithe Mohammed Smahneh, who also plays the serpentine figure at the start) appears to come undone, his body parts all going in different directions.
But the stakes remain high, as is confirmed when Natour — who does almost all of the talking, in Arabic, with English supertitles clearly projected onto the back wall — recounts the moment when his doctor gave him his diagnosis.
His condition is incurable. Unnamed, it sounds like cancer: “the same power that created life” now “gone wild.” Zuabi’s text and Natour’s understated performance give the disease a terrible beauty: “My cells divide and divide and divide.”
This mix of beauty and the awful truth is the text’s power, made more affecting by quotidian details, as when Natour lists “Things You Will Do After I’m Gone.” Earlier, he tells the boyhood story of buying a fish in a plastic bag. On his way home, bullies snatch the bag and toss it to one another. “I could see my fish swimming calmly in midair,” he says, before the bag is dropped and he watches as the fish’s gills open and close and go still — his first understanding of death.
Death is all around him in the hospital, of course. The production reminds us of this when dancers wielding IV bags emerge during his fish story. His room opens to a hallway at the rear, and periodically an orderly wheels by with a body on a gurney.
And then there is the dirt. It first appears as the food he’s given, an oddity you might not initially notice. But soon dirt is spilling everywhere, despite the desperate efforts of his wife to tidy it up or the semi-comic cleaning routines of staff members (to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” mixed into an effective electronic score by King). As a theatrical metaphor, the dirt is not subtle. It’s strong.
The proliferation of dirt summons a memory of Natour’s character helping to bury his grandmother when he was 15. He remembers thinking of her not as the old woman she had become but as the desirable girl she once was, a thought he acts out by shoveling dirt onto a dancer embodying feminine allure. After burying his grandmother, he says, he went behind the house with his girlfriend, undressed and fell to the ground with her “again and again and again.”
The repetition of those words echoes the cells that “divide and divide and divide,” the force that will kill him. It’s the “swirl of life” that will fill the void he leaves, a force that King’s choreography gives form to in a swirl of dancers. The inextricable connection between life and death is what “Last Ward” understands. The connection between words and dance, too.
Through May 12 at Gibney: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center, Manhattan; gibneydance.org