Boy Meets Girl Meets Poisonous Plant: Belladonna at the 92nd St Y

Credit Julie Lemberger
Credit Julie Lemberger

Knowledge may be power. But in Belladonna, a “Rappaccini’s Daughter”-inspired dance piece from Adam Barruch and Chelsea Bonosky, too much power can be toxic. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, in which a serious young scholar’s love for the titular daughter, Beatrice, is complicated by her propensity for promenading around a garden of poisonous plants (and taking on some of their more venomous characteristics), Belladonna strips down the saga into its fundamental dichotomies: civilization/nature, male/female, lover/beloved.

Stripped is an apt term, perhaps, given the structure of the afternoon at the 92nd Street Y. The Stripped/Undressed series is at once performance and presentation: over the first half of the performance, Barruch and Bonosky — clad in basic black rehearsal clothing — discuss their inspirations in  making the piece, unpacking each gesture. They show us how a series of images — “snake,” “knowledge” — find their way into the vocabulary of movement: into a series of gestures that, ellided, start to form the backbone of a dance. It’s an illuminating and welcome part of the event as a whole: despite the seemingly primal nature of dance, its complex physical language doesn’t always translate for a spectator — and the Stripped portion of the afternoon allows for fascinating insight into how a piece like Belladonna comes to be.

The second half of the show, which features Belladonna ‘dressed’ in its entirety, was initially somewhat jarring, given the expectations engendered by Stripped/Dressed’s setup. Belladonna, with its minimalist appraoch to costume and lighting, often felt ‘”stripped” even as a fully-performed piece: a sense not ameliorated by the slightly awkward feel of the 92nd St Y’s upstairs stage. But both Bonosky and Barruch — consummate dancers capable of the greatest physical subtlety even in the most dramatic or ecstastic of throes — made the most of the space’s limitations: at one point, the pair jumps between the downstage ‘floor’ and the elevated stage proper: simultaneously opening up the playing space and creating an unsettling — and thrilling — feel of theatrical transgression.

If there is a weakness to Belladonna, it is in the lack of contrast between Barruch and Bonosky. For a piece so structured around dichotomies, Barruch and Bonosky appeared less as opposing forces and more as complementary ones: a directorial choice that made increasing sense as the two characters began to “merge” — a concept discussed in the opening presentation — but dissipated some of Belladonna’s potential early tension. Often, the most powerful moments in Belladonna were those moments of stillness: images (the opening and closing set-pieces among them, both of which are too striking to spoil) in which the difference between our two characters becomes all the clearer.

Still, Belladonna — with its eerie, viscerally arresting music and sensationally talented performers — proves an exciting reimagining of a classic tale. As part of the Stripped/Undressed series, it’s a valuable look into how one haunting story finds its feet.

Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton

Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.

Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.


  1. Sulagna Mukherjee says:

    Pia, i could not , not read till the end at one gho, that captivating, you made my heart go out for Ira ..and that pending hug ! brilliant

  2. Vistasp Hodiwala says:

    Like I said, can you do anything with less than something approaching your customary brilliance Pia? This is a very moving story; hauntingly expressed. There were many places I had to simply pause and take in the beauty of expression, but these few lines on modern day cheating in examination halls were too good to pass up without acknowledgement.

    ‘In my time, the body language of a cheater had been much more unsophisticated. Loud. Like repeated trips to the toilet. Now, it could be as subtle as a hand tucking away a strand of stray hair, a pre-planned signal. Like the way adults cheat in the big world. A wiser cheating that’s tucked beneath their bed sheets. Inside pithy excuses. In their lack of generosity, their lack of time. In rationed affection. A cheating that is more devastating than any copied answer in any exam hall.’

    What an awesome start to what promises to be another amazing foray for your many talents.

    • Pia Ghosh-Roy Pia Ghosh Roy says:

      Vispy, what can I say to that? So
      very touched. Thank you, a few times over. I don’t know where this start
      will lead – but I’m very lucky to have friends like you who read what I write.

  3. rekha says:

    Hi Pia, this is beautiful and so haunting, I suddenly went back to the daily evenings when I also carry clammy skin and headache with me home….take care

  4. Matt Inwood says:

    A story very beautifully told, Pia, with a narrative and turns of expression crafted so well. The cheating paragraph is a delicious collection of words, as is the description of the emotions around the broken bottle of perfume, but there are many more besides those. I’m so glad I saved it for a time when I could savour it properly.

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