The notion of community-based art appeals to an egalitarian ethic: Spend extended time with a group of people who somehow differ from you. Gain true insight into their identity, their ideals and their challenges through careful listening, observation, interaction and research. Then give those findings (and, presumably, that community) heightened visibility through artistic expression. But in many of these binary endeavors I've witnessed, it's hard to say which was greater: the degree to which humanitas was truly elevated, or the degree to which artistic standards declined.
In the most successful work I've seen in this field, choreographer Bill T. Jones incorporated the tightly edited images, voices and stories of people confronting serious illness in his 1994 dance Still/Here. Liz Lerman and others have gone considerably beyond that, bringing their subjects on stage with them, conspicuously integrating them into every part of the creative process including performance.
Certainly a broad spectrum of gifted artists including Anna Halprin, Carol Parker (in her performance of Martha Clarke's Nocturne), Anna Deavere Smith and even Marcel Marceau have effectively excavated some of the interior facts contained in different bodies and different lives.
By contrast, Lerman and her well-meaning devotees have too frequently taken their everyday people and transformed them--unfortunately--into dancers who are mediocre at best.
My sharpest critique of this form contrasts the ostensible pursuit of the truth in the lives of the subjects with the utter falsity in the display of those subjects' bodies on stage.
Yes, that word is falsity. For if everyone's a dancer (a comforting--but still questionable--bromide), by now it's clear: Not everyone's a modern dancer.
But even so, if that truth is not in their bodies, it still can be imposed on them--as an alien aesthetic or a frame their forms don't begin to fit.
Arguably it's an artistic form of cultural overwriting. Since we see a lot of it in community-based art that takes the form of dance, in a sense its presence was unsurprising in Even Exchange's performance of Time: Honored and Embodied last weekend at Fletcher Opera House. Repeatedly the group choreography in My Generation appeared to acclimate to the capabilities of the least accomplished performers on stage. Noticeably languid and legato--and not particularly challenging--moves regularly set the dynamic for the section, in which performers over-relied on stale pop culture tag lines (like "You are the weakest link") to define the different age groups on stage.
Five people with varying degrees of flexibility in their bodies slowly transitioned from tableau to tableau, before dyads in conflict similarly dragged. Elsewhere, non-dancers nakedly looked around for movement cues throughout their time on stage. At such points this performance arguably devolved from a modern dance concert into a beginners' recital.
Among the older performers on stage, Sally Fisher alone seemed at home with the modern choreography her guests had devised. I'd gladly see Fisher perform again: Her level of commitment, presence and unwavering intent was an object lesson, not only for the amateurs on stage, but some of the professionals as well. She always convinced me she knew what she was doing. Conditions improved in C. Elegans, as designer (and former dancer) Maggie Bennett's metaphorical doors surreally descended from above, one by one, like petals from a Robert Wilson opera. While poet Clare Brown reflected on the gradualness of the aging process, dancers gradually enacted three of the truest stage pictures in this performance. While company member Ann Huntley sat knitting, four people walked out, one by one. A woman spun a globe of the world. A man shuffled a deck of cards. Another man slowly started juggling three balls in his hands. Then a woman holding a metronome crossed the stage, stopped, and set its pendulum in motion.
Can we call it dance? No, not really. But it was theater. And as counterpoint to Brown's words, it was more than sufficient.
Later, Brown inventoried the subtractions of age. "I can't drink coffee as I did," she said, before noting, incredulously, "I can't drink wine as I did." As the list continued, one by one, the disparate dancers arrayed about the stage congregated, left of center stage. Slowly they formed a constituency, bouncing on their heels--with some bouncing higher during particular admissions than others. The point was made, with visual energy and poetry: When it comes to aging, we all ultimately join the band.
An echo of the first tableau effectively closed the section. While Huntley knitted, a woman brought a flashlight to her portion of the stage, turning it off and on. Then two women met when they crossed from different sides, and one gave the other a birthday present. A third woman found her place and slowly peeled an orange, before a man holding an old, mechanical alarm clock walked across stage, faced us, and stopped. After a moment, the clock's alarm rang.
Combined, Brown's moving words and the group's visual accompaniment in these passages gave some of the most effective representations of passing time we saw that afternoon. And they did it without putting something that clearly didn't belong on anyone's body on stage.
While I do challenge much of what I see in community-based dance art, I don't believe I'm critically transposing something best left to another genre. No one seriously asks Eiko and Koma to put a little pep--and a few more jetés, please--into their Butoh-based time ceremonies at American Dance Festival. It misses the point to demand Pilobolus rigidly conform to the recognized conventions of square dance.
But it is appropriate, I believe, to ask a group of dance artists collaborating with a population to reassess the sources of the stories and truths--and particularly the movements--they put on them.
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.