Choreographers have long used dance as a vehicle for social commentary and protest. As Maguy Marin once put it, dance is "a weapon that disarms. A weapon that does not kill."
Killian Manning's Uncle Sam Wants You!, which opened DIDA's fourth season last week, brandished that weapon with vigor at times. In an opening section set to cellist Jami Sieber's haunting "Prayer 1," dyads from Manning's ensemble, No Forwarding Address, took down strips of white cheesecloth suspended at midstage. As Jehanne Dubrow's disturbing poem "Syllabus for the Dark Ahead" played, they folded the strips until they ominously took on the triangular form of American flags at military funerals. Six performers silently held them out to us before Geraud Staton placed his on the floor, turned a crisp ninety degrees, and slowly walked off, stage right.
Other affecting moments were similarly theatrical. As J Evarts and Jonathan Leinbach reenacted grand jury testimony from the trial of Ethel Rosenberg, Manning's troupe repeatedly shifted in its circle of chairs, their postures indicating boredom, intense interest, or contempt. In another section, more strips of fabric were fashioned into gags, handcuffs, barricades, and nooses.
But, in dance as in Washington, D.C., everything comes down to the optics, which slipped here—more than once. Glimpses of advanced technique were the exceptions in a work that didn't appear to push far beyond dancers' comfort zones. The smiling performers and lovely legato spirals and arcs didn't reflect the gritty characters and situations of Lou Reed's "Dirty Blvd." A later sequence set to Simon and Garfunkel's "America" depicted the youthful exuberance of its opening lyrics, not the disaffection that follows. A Rockettes-style kick line burlesqued easy jingoism to "The Stars and Stripes Forever," but the lyrical imagery preceding George Michael's "Hand to Mouth" left the lyrics more critical than the dance accompanying them.