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By Brenda Dixon Gottschild
The war in Iraq. Breast cancer. Racism. Global warming. Sexual abuse. Torture tactics. Domestic violence. Environmental pollution. Homophobia. These diseases plague our daily lives and humble our souls. Their urgency affects how we think, what we do, and what we create. If we can agree that all the world’s a stage, then it is not surprising that these topics are front and center in recent dance works by established and upcoming choreographers.
Dancemakers have responded to social ills throughout the history of modern dance. Racism captured the imagination of mid-20th-century Americans: Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown (1936); Pearl Primus’ Strange Fruit and Jim Crow Train (both 1943), and Slave Market (1944); and Katherine Dunham’s Southland (1951) all dealt with this issue. In Germany, Kurt Jooss created The Green Table (1932), a “dance of death” about the horrors of war.
A new crop of socially engaged works has contemporary artists following in the footsteps of their aesthetic ancestors, particularly since the wake-up call of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For today’s choreographers the circumstances have drastically changed, and societal injustices seem to have multiplied. Urban Bush Women, Compagnie JANT-BI, Spectrum Dance Theater, Jane Comfort and Company, and Ananya Dance Theatre are a handful of contemporary groups who are daring to chart this dangerous territory. In each instance there is no loss of artistic integrity in taking on socially conscious themes.
Urban Bush Women/Compagnie Jant-Bi
Les écailles de la mémoire (The Scales of Memory) brings together Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s NYC–based Urban Bush Women and Germaine Acogny’s Senegal-based Compagnie JANT-BI for an international collaboration. “The three themes are resistance, memory, and love,” says Zollar. The dance explores the connections and chasms between Africans and African Americans, with history, gender, and religion playing their part. “Dance is a social act. Those who cannot read or write understand it,” declares Acogny, who recently won a Bessie for Fagaala, an explosive and haunting work about the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s created with Butoh artist Kota Yamazaki. “I know,” says Acogny, “that my only way for fighting against fatality is dancing.”
Zollar and Acogny first met at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 2004. Then, in February 2005, when they were both at Columbia College Chicago, they saw each other’s work. “It was an amazing moment of emotional power and chemistry between the two companies,” says Zollar. They felt a connection—a spiritual connection—and began to talk about a collaboration. For Acogny, too, this was a special kind of connection: “With Jawole, we are the same color, but I live in Africa and she lives in the U.S. We think we know each other, but we don’t, so there is this interesting discovering between Africans and African Americans.”
In December of that year, Zollar and three UBW dancers lived and studied with JANT-BI in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, the small town where Acogny’s school is located. They also visited Gorée Island, where enslaved Africans were sent off to the Americas in the Middle Passage. When the Senegalese dancers visited the United States last year, they were taken to Florida plantations and museums so they “could see and feel what happened,” Zollar says.
The dancing by this combined ensemble of 14 begs the question of what is African and what is African American. Africans do hip hop because it has become a global phenomenon, yet hip hop itself is African-based African American movement. As adept at a hip hop body wave as at a contact improvisation lift, JANT-BI’s company of seven male dancers are trained in contemporary African modern dance and well-versed in traditional Senegalese dance, especially a form known as Sabar. Acogny is pleased when they contribute to the creation. “When I give them a movement,” she says, “they can transform it.”
Scales of Memory is a journey to home and back. Contact improvisation is performed with intensity because of the purpose and theme of the story. Beautiful love duets highlight woman’s power and female equality. The UBW women lift and are lifted; they chase and are chased. The piece reframes contemporary dance in an African cultural envelope. As Zollar says, “Seeing these things helped us come up with layers of memory, and that’s why the piece is titled The Scales of Memory, because you can peel things back and rub up against them.”
Beginning this month at the University of Florida, Gainesville, The Scales of Memory will tour the U.S. Locations include Society for the Performing Arts in Houston (Jan. 19), the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (Feb. 1–3), Columbia College of Chicago (March 6–8), and the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco (April 4–6). For a full schedule, see www.urbanbushwomen.com.
Jane Comfort and Company (New York City)
In a stellar turn from her Pandora’s box of devastating surprises, Jane Comfort lays irony upon irony in her latest work, An American Rendition. The title means an American “version,” but in the covert language of post-9/11 international engagement, “rendition” also means sending hostages to remote outposts where torture is allowed. Comfort’s adept ensemble juxtaposes scenes of a man apprehended in an airport and “rendered” to one such outpost with scenes of imaginary reality television shows that look like American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, and Fear Factor. Contestants try to become people they aren’t, while the hostage has to prove that he is not who the captors say he is. The irony is heightened by abrupt changes of scene from a torture chamber interrogation to a TV studio with the flick of a switch—and a loud, unsettling buzz.
Comfort creates an uncomfortable world. She brilliantly manipulates the way movement reinforces dialogue in tying the victim in knots. In no way sensationalistic, the torture scenes are powerful enough to give us pause, with veiled references to the Abu Ghraib disgrace and overall sexual humiliation. One of the reality shows becomes metaphorical torture as untalented, unsuccessful candidates compete. A mixture of gallows humor and stark tragedy, this is not Comfort’s first foray into the wilderness of social disease. In 1990 Deportment dealt with “the polite way of being bigoted,” Comfort said in an interview. She grew up in Tennessee, where she said one was allowed to be funny and extremely prejudiced at the same time. Her Three Bagatelles for the Righteous (1996) depicted Bob Dole and Bill Clinton as puppets controlled by their handlers.
The new piece fills the audience with a sense of vulnerability: the victim/hostage stripped in the interrogation room; the airport traveler—all of us—stripped of shoes, carrying secret toilet articles in a see-through plastic bag. Visual artist Steve Miller’s X-ray projections of handbags, weapons, brains, and bones reinforce the idea that there is no place to hide: “Big Brother” is watching us all, and he’s a big bully. Rendition is a powerful call to action, not telling us what to do, but alerting us that something must be done.
An American Rendition premiered at SUNY Oswego on Sept. 18, 2007. For more information visit www.janecomfortandcompany.org.
Spectrum Dance Theater (Seattle)
Celebrating SDT’s 25th season, Donald Byrd’s new piece, Interrupted Narratives/WAR, launches his “American Stories,” a three-year project that asks, How can dance theater make a difference? Byrd traces the beginning of this line of thought back to the 9/11 tragedy. He lived a few blocks from the World Trade Center. “I was emotionally and psychologically devastated,” he said in an interview. “My dance company issues seemed trivial and insignificant. Why even bother? Dancing certainly did not look like it saved lives.”
Since then, he has set out to blur the boundary between dance theater and community activism and hopes to use his artistic vision to inspire civic dialogue and social action. The “interrupted narratives” of the title are the lives of soldiers disrupted—or ended—by war. In beginning a dialogue with a real-world community, disabled vets were invited to the rehearsal process. On his website (www.spectrumdance.org), Byrd says that by incorporating the story of a Polish writer killed during World War II, he wanted this work to be “about war in general and have the audience consider war and its impact on people in general.”
A seasoned choreographer of violent intensity and strident vision, Byrd knows well how to make his point. He uses movement energy like a pile driver breaking concrete; the dancers are the machine and the audience’s defenses the medium to be broken through. He reaches us. The strong, bold moves and sterling technique that we have come to expect of his dancing samurais are all there. Biographies of soldiers read from The Seattle Times are accompanied by dancers “embodying” these real people. A dancer is shot again and again and crumbles to the floor in a hundred different ways while a child upstage kneels and plants memorial flags in a window box. Dancers break out into challenging dancing while a list of the dead are read off.
Byrd’s athletic, body-bashing movement is a battle in itself and an appropriate metaphor for the larger war. The score is a mix of junkyard clack and clatter, machines, an Irish folk song sung a cappella. How can we say that this is beautiful? But it is.
Interrupted Narratives/WAR premiered on Oct. 5, 2007 at The Moore Theatre in Seattle, WA. For more information, visit www.spectrumdance.org.
Ananya Dance Theatre (Minneapolis)
“You can have excellence and community-building at the same time,” declares Ananya Chatterjea, choreographer and principal dancer of her company. Utilizing her expertise in Odissi (a classical Indian dance form), yoga, and Chhau (a martial art dance from the Indian state of Orissa), she has fashioned an exhilarating new technique tailored to the needs of her ensemble of 20-odd, all-female dancers of color. The work is communal (the core group includes community dancers wherever they perform), collective, and reflects Chatterjea’s commitment to social change.
Pipaashaa is the Bengali word for “extreme thirst.” What is thirsting is our planet. Chatterjea depicts a community of women who live and work on a polluted site, so environmental pollution and the racism inherent in poisoning poor people’s neighborhoods is the theme. This is a dance of mourning and takes on the proportions of Indian epic theater.
Chatterjea makes gorgeous group choreography, sheets of movement that ripple with energy, drive, and intention. Beyond its theme, the real story here is the power, strength, and force of these women dancing “and how we can personally transform,” says Chatterjea in a documentary.
This work is the first in a three-year partnership between Chatterjea and the Twin Cities–based Women’s Environmental Institute. The project aims to reach low-income communities (of color) about environmental issues and health risks.
Pipaashaa premiered at Minneapolis’ Southern Theater on Sept. 6, 2007. Their next production, Daak (Call to Action), will also premiere at Southern Theater, June 12–15, 2008. For more information, visit: southerntheater.org
There are more socially committed works afoot. This is the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—but we know that the real iceberg is melting! There are good instinctive reasons to dance about the war, the planet, sexism, and racism. Keep an eye out, and see how dance can make a difference.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is a senior advising editor of DM. Her most recent book is The Black Dancing Body (Palgrave, 2005, now in paperback).