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Beyond Babel Builds a Wall Through the Middle of a Modern Verona

Keone and Mari Madrid choreograph and star in their full-length dance piece about star-crossed love and political warfare.

The cast of Beyond Babel, choreographed by Keone and Mari Madrid, at the Gym at Judson.
(© Aidan Gibney)

Beyond Babel is billed as an urban dance adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but it has much more in common with the biblical story its title alludes to. Just as in the ancient tale, a united collective of people is robbed of its common language, split into factions, and sent to newly designated corners of the world. In the universe of Beyond Babel, territories are marked by an arbitrary dividing wall, and the common language that once made their inhabitants harmonious is the breathtaking choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid. And once you see the level of execution in this extraordinary ensemble of dancers, you'll understand why the dictatorial powers in this contemporary Babel shudder at the sight of such power.

Presented by Hideaway Circus at the Gym at Judson, with creative direction by Josh and Lyndsay Aviner, Beyond Babel is a gift to the crossover audience between dance television and ragged downtown theater. The Madrids (collaborators and spouses) have performed their work on NBC's World of Dance, have choreographed for Fox's So You Think You Can Dance, and have been viewed over 1.5 billion times on YouTube in Justin Bieber's "Love Yourself" music video.

But there's something special about the energy of a 200-seat theater in the basement of a church where you can see the sweat on their faces and feel the floor shaking under your chair. There's also an alchemy that happens when artists like the Madrids are given a blank canvas and the luxury of a full story arc, as opposed to the tight three-minute routines required by network television. Yes, Beyond Babel is essentially a compilation of those kinds of routines. But the Madrids' extraordinarily specific and impressively understated choreography is allowed to build on itself and carve out peaks and valleys for the characters we get to know over the course of two hours.

Keone Madrid, Fabian Tucker, and Mari Madrid in Beyond Babel.
(© Aidan Gibney)

In addition to choreographing, the Madrids also lead their full-length piece as the star-crossed lovers sent to opposite sides of the wall (a beautiful crocheted art installation by London Kaye). The warring factions are designated by red and blue wrist bands — Keone on the red side, Mari on the blue — which, in concert with the giant wall centerpiece, suggests some commentary about the current divided state of American politics (lighting designers Jeff Croiter and Sean Beach make striking images out of that color motif).

We also get a smattering of Berlin Wall imagery as masked guards foil escape attempts (Carlis Pistol designs the costumes, which become increasingly monochromatic as military rule takes hold). The civilian assignments of red and blue seem to be random, but the hatred they inspire is real and is expressed in some of the most unrestrained fight choreography I've seen attempted in performance. Mikey Ruiz in particular, whose character lands behind bars and dances that experience, delivers one of the most physically and emotionally brave performances in the ensemble.

But for all the anger and pain that take center stage in Beyond Babel, its audacious joy and hope are its most memorable qualities. Social dancing blends with high-octane hip-hop as moments of peace become jubilant revels; Mari leads a collection of dancers bounding in unison toward the wall in an attempt to deliver a note to the other side; and our two stars bring elements of fluid, contemporary movement into the romantic duet that illustrates their eventual reunion. Of course, as a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story, we can't hold out hope for a perfectly happy ending. But if that's what you need in a piece of theater, just wait until the Madrids come to Broadway with their pending Britney Spears and Karate Kid musicals — both of which I suddenly have complete faith in.

Beyond Babel runs through March 25 at the Gym at Judson.
(© Aidan Gibney)