Just back from a month-long tour of Turkey, Armenia and Tajikistan - sponsored by the US State Department and produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music — choreographer David Dorfman presented Unsettled, the culminating performance of his collaborations,at BAM. Joining his four own dancers are two Armenian guest performers and Turkish choreographer Korhan Başaran’s troupe. It proved to be a fruitful partnership — not just for the dancers, but for audience members like myself, who are largely unfamiliar with Turkish and Armenian dance.

<i>Unsettled</i> at BAM Fisher © Julieta Cervantes
Unsettled at BAM Fisher
© Julieta Cervantes
Though interviews with Dorfman cite reconciliation as the overarching theme of this hour-long piece, I found it to have a didactic side, too. The performers spoke both in English and Turkish throughout, often instructing their onstage peers on what movements to perform or how to react.

The piece opened with a brief solo by Dorfman, carefully encased in a square of light. Eventually he was joined, one by one, by the rest of the 11-person cast.Dorfman and Basaran are the clear elders of this gathering, even if their removed, observational relationship (to each other and to the other performers) is never explicitly made clear. Both men are compelling, hyper-mobile performers, but their real mastery lies in their restraint. They know when to temper explosive, percussive movement with moments of quiet and repetition.

They’ve also created a world that repeatedly defies categorization, in which characters can turn from instructive to sadistic in the blink of an eye. Evrim Akyay gently recites a word in Turkish to Kendra Portier, patiently demonstrating that when he says “koş,” he means for her to run around the space.

<i>Unsettled</i> at BAM Fisher © Julieta Cervantes
Unsettled at BAM Fisher
© Julieta Cervantes
 But suddenly his patience is gone: When Portier struggles to remember what movement a word signifies (her confusion, if feigned, feels admirably real), Akyay snaps, screaming and jerking her body into the correct position. Raja Kelly’s similar interaction with the rest of the cast starts off in the same way. When he places himself behind a dancer and commands their bodies as a puppeteer would — with the performers attempting to mouth the words he’s saying as quickly as he makes them up — he begins by talking about a slumber party. By the time he’s finished his manic puppet play, voicing a different character for each dancer —a small tour de force in itself —he’s on his knees, screaming over and over again that he’s sorry.

It’s this undercurrent of manipulation, often followed by apology, that transforms the piece from what could’ve been a paint-by-number bit of collaboration to a piece of resonant, moving dance theater. Asli Gunes Sumer’s shaky, deliberate walk across a line of dancers’ bodies on the floor gains a new perspective when juxtaposed with Portier commanding Christina Robson and Bryan Strimpel to move closer to one another—and then to hold each other or let each other down. Ms. Robson, always a charismatic performer, proves herself the master of inventive partnering, even lending her performance choices an air of spontaneity.

<i>Unsettled</i> at BAM Fisher © Julieta Cervantes
Unsettled at BAM Fisher
© Julieta Cervantes
Though we’re never given a clear narrative, what is revealed to us is just enough to go on—and it is well complemented by Tuce Tasak’s alternately geometric and atmospheric lighting design and Sam Crawford, Liz de Lise, Jesse Manno and Timothy Quigley’s original and inventive score, performed live. (How exciting and refreshing to hear a strong line of percussion in a modern dance piece!) Dorfman and Başaran may well be successful choreographers, but they are excellent storytellers first.

****1