As you take your seat for Alejandro Cerrudo’s “It Starts Now,” the stage is already set, half covered with a partially unrolled mat. The show, which had its debut at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, commences with the mat unrolling to reveal a hidden dancer. It finishes, about an hour later, with that dancer rolled up again, as if we were back at the beginning and the performers were ready for another crowd to file in.
The intervening time is chopped up into many small sections, accompanied by a miscellany of electronic, ambient and film-score tracks, including the sound of a purring cat and the final speech from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” There are many blackouts, many dim episodes with hand-held lights, many hats, many dancers being dragged by other dancers, many times when a dancer’s clothing gives off smoke, as if smoldering.
But these are empty calories. By the time “It Starts Now” seems about to start again — that is, when it’s over — you might feel that nothing has really started, or that you could have stayed home and just watched its sizzle reel.
The title is in part an announcement. This is the first independent show for Cerrudo, who was long the resident choreographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and has served in that role for Pacific Northwest Ballet since 2020. For this show, produced by him and the Joyce, he has assembled a pickup company of eight lithe and skilled freelance dancers.
His default style is a rippling, serpentine flow, and his comfort zone appears to be the kind of duet in which two people tangle into a knot that never finishes tightening. There are many of these duets in “It Starts Now,” and they are the best parts, inventive and tender if also a bit sappy and soporific.
But Cerrudo is clearly trying to say something about time and “the now” — how it can contract and stretch, how live dance can make us feel the evanescent preciousness of the present. And the theme gets away from him or resonates unflatteringly. Some of the lighting and theatrical effects (by Michael Korsch) are arresting (especially the smoking costumes), but only briefly. They flash as weaker reflections of ideas better executed in the work of Crystal Pite, among others.
Cerrudo’s sensibility is much warmer than Pite’s, and the Chaplin speech (with its antifascist exhortation in favor of kindness and universal brotherhood) could be the heart of “It Starts Now.” Yet what the dancer Daniel Rae Srivastava acts out has little relation to the words.
The next section, with Srivastava in his underwear, faintly illuminated by more hand-held lights, might represent rebirth, a New Man. Yet the rest of the work reverts to more tangling duets, hats, dragging, smoldering and the cat sound. Before it goes back to the start, it gets worse.
It Starts Now
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.