The scudding, iron skies over Duke Chapel accompanied a sudden drop in temperature Saturday evening. Nope, pathetic fallacies just don't get much more pathetic than the weather that ushered out the 2004 American Dance Festival in Durham last weekend. It was a more than usually good thing, then, that the work inside that night warmed the blood and fortified the spirit.
Batsheva Dance Company's Deca Dance, a veritable greatest-hits collection of choreographer Ohad Naharin's last ten years with the Israeli company, closed the 2004 season with a fitting reminder of the beauty--and the controversiality--of modern dance.
In a time when government functionaries have made the contemplation of torture all but a matter of routine, arguably abbreviating civil liberties at home while annihilating them in prison camps abroad, it serves well to note that art is not a friend of the totalitarian regime. This is so even when it doesn't confront us with uncomfortable metaphors or overt evidence of coercion and repression--or our possible cultural complicity in these acts, as Naharin's work does.
No. Totalitarianism, if it is wise, can never be truly comfortable with art, for reasons poorly concealed in its own name. The despot demands total control. He must believe he knows which side everyone is on at all times--else, why spend so much effort on surveillance? As a result, the meaning of acts--public acts in particular--must be controlled, and beyond question.
The extent of the effect goes far beyond ersatz wardrobe malfunctions, tasteless sexual jokes--or Moveon.org and Adbusters anti-commercials on television, for that matter. At the July 7 symposium on political choreography reported in our last issue, several panelists spoke to an increasing reluctance among American producers in recent years to book controversial performances in their theaters.
Reason enough, all told, for particularly sensitive audience members to have noticed more than one kind of chill gathering outside the doors of Page Auditorium last Saturday night. And more than reason enough for them to be warmed by what awaited within.
While we are critical, with reason, of the selections and omissions each season at ADF, in such a quickly shifting climate we must recognize that presenting artists like Maguy Marin last year and Batsheva and John Jasperse this year still speaks to a certain degree of nerve and political courage found lacking at other venues. When ADF provides a forum for such controversy, such pointed cultural and political critique, it bears witness to what goes frequently unseen. These choices demonstrate anew that there is only one way to extend and strengthen the freedom of artistic expression in this country--by exercising it.
Others have claimed to see a "lighter side" in Naharin's remix of the past decade. It's a difficult position to endorse, given the elements of confrontation, intimidation, surveillance and religious and political lockstep that riddle the ten sections of Deca Dance.
The in-your-face dynamics of the opening excerpt from Naharin's Virus places a starkly-lit row of dancers at the front of the stage, in an otherworldly white covering over black tights. These metaphorical microbes scan the audience with very active interest, their arms slightly raised in front of them, poised as if on the brink of leaping out at us. Their twitchy, uneasy stillness is broken by individual solos and a repeated group gesture, when all mimic beating with fists on a barrier in front of them.
In the process of enacting an odd ritual in the Black Milk excerpt, five men elliptically interrogate culturally acceptable forms of bonding. As the gestures and responses of two become more intimate, the responses of the other men isolate both at first, and then one as the sequence continues. This section follows one in which a woman's on-stage solo is accompanied by a spoken word text beginning with the words, "My mother, she wanted a boy." Our responses to sexual difference, and what they lead to, seem the focus of these early passages.
That sense first intensifies and then broadens in the seductive introduction to the passage from 1998's Zachacha. While French vocalist Charles Trenet fairly purrs the lyrics to the 1959 Paul Anka hit "(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings," six women in black tops and pants ironically respond to his entreaties.
But it is no coincidence when the women quickly, roughly grasp their breasts, crotches and then their throats in a chokehold to the line "The magic thrill that's in your touch." The element of coercion, of unwanted attention visited on them, winds up being radically redistributed when the full complement of 17 dancers emerges from the darkness, dressed in black suits with black hats screwed down on their heads. They fill the front of the stage, perfect icons for spies from the Cold War--or possibly more recent vintage.
Once again, as an audience we are under surveillance. The intimidating, unsmiling front line scans the crowd before slowly crossing down the stairs into the theater to gravely demand impromptu dance partners from our ranks. While the audience's unease subsided into laughter and applause, the metaphor for arrest unfolded. Indeed, totalitaria demands a similar dance of complicity from its citizens. It's a dubious recommendation at best, that each night the secret police asked us to join them in the dance, we complied--some with reluctance, others with great gusto. Lacking that, we cheered on the ones who did.
Perhaps Caryl Churchill's assessment of these issues, in last month's Far Away at Manbites Dog Theater, wasn't so extreme after all.
Surveillance keeps creeping in, in Naharin's work. It briefly takes the center stage when Stefen Ferry, the troupe's tallest dancer, comes twice between us and a perfectly neat little 60s dance party. While cute couples and singles mingle in the background, he walks to stage front and center, where he simply stands and looks at us just long enough to make his point. Then he joins the party. We are being watched.
The hidden price of eroticism is hinted at in the section from Queens of Golub, when six women individually enact various erotic poses--each with just a little something wrong at the borders. One supplicant is forced to the ground--but slowly, tastefully so. A woman whose back is turned to us appears to be undergoing slow electrocution as her rigid--but inviting--form repeatedly tremors and jerks, just a bit.
But perhaps the evening's most controversial section was the "Chairs" sequence, excerpted from 1993's Anaphaza. To "Echad Mi Yodea," a seder song reframed by the heavy-metal group Tractor's Revenge, Naharin seats 15 dancers in a semicircle of wooden chairs that stretch across the stage. While the lyrics of the additive song ultimately tally up 13 different elements of Jewish faith--"Four are our matriarchs, Three are our forefathers, Two are the tablets of the commandments and One is Our God who is in the heavens and on earth"--a similarly additive set of movements on stage tells a radically different story.
The people, whose suits and hats echo the garments of Hassidism, assemble a series of violent and cryptic gestures. A self-stabbing motion is added early in the mix, as is something that suggests self-slicing across the midsection. Then each vehemently shakes their head to all around in a grotesque yes-man parody.
These additions are regularly interrupted when the human dominos appear to be sequentially shot in the back at the end of each verse. Their forms fly forward, arms and chest flung out, legs apart, in a wave that crosses the arc from left to right. All freeze in midair, though, except for the last form on the right, who falls to the floor at the end of each verse. By the time the next stanza starts, all have sagged back into their seats. As they do, the cycle of violence and compulsive, reiterated action begins anew.
Yes, there is a reason why Anaphaza was the subject of political protests in its home country. It is connected to the reason such works are needed at this hour in America: to remind us how it's done, and how art, courageously created, can stand up to--and help defeat--any coercive human force on Earth.
Our 2004 ADF coverage concludes next week with student showings, Acts to Follow and selected second thoughts on the season in toto. Join us then.