The dirt on “underground”

Choreographer David Dorfman‘s self-congratulatory paean to the Weather Underground finished its run at BAM‘s Harvey Theater yesterday. “Underground” makes a person exclaim, “What this? I have to check my brain at the door?”
Or at least a person who’s not a dance critic. When choreographers present wrongheaded reductions of vexing, long-lived political questions, we critics too often give them a benefit of the doubt we would never extend to a playwright, a politician, a tenth grader. We may quibble with the show’s tangential ideas and execution, but we rarely question the issues on which the work is premised, however sketchily. Dorfman means to challenge us with “underground.” We need to let him know, in more precise terms than he musters, how he’s doing.
In “underground,” the 50-year-old Dorfman looks back to the heroes of his youth, the ten self-styled American revolutionaries who, in their own broad terms, “attacked symbols or institutions of American injustice” for a decade beginning in the late ’60s. Dorfman laments the supposed apathy of current 20somethings. He gets a young horde of sweaty barefoot dancers dressed in Urban Outfitters chic to ask or respond to these questions:
In a violent world, can you fight for peace?
Would you kill for your country?
Would you kill for your family?
Would you kill five people if it would save fifteen? Fifteen if it would save forty-five?
[all the way up to several billion]
“Whatever” is as good an answer as any when questions are stripped of all the contingencies that would make them agonizing and real.
Later, hippy-Jesus lookalike Joe Poulson freezes mid-motion with fist in the air. A few people gather around: they’ve never seen an Activist before.
The show ends with Poulson brought back to life with Dorfman’s help. Together they fling an imaginary bomb. Without the grizzled elder’s heroic return, The Movement would never have revived, as one bouncy youth in a faded Army t-shirt makes clear: he says he isn’t into politics, he’d rather work on his website.
Where has Dorfman been, lo, these many years? Along with cell phones, those websites he scoffs at have proven essential organizing tools for current activists (yes, they exist). But with Dorfman’s kind of thinking as the alternative — “Does what you do make a difference?” is another dopey question flung our way — college kids could be clicking through porn sites on the Internet all day and watching reruns of “Gilmore Girls” on their iPods all night, and we’d still be better off.
The Weathermen loved making a spectacle of themselves. The whole era was one big spectacle, and we knew it even while it was going on. All of us: black-bereted, machine-gun-toting Tania, the Black Panthers with their Maoist military drills, the lankhaired ladies in their Renaissance Faire velvet and brocade, me — only a child. I don’t mean it was only a game, but it was also a game.
On the other hand, people who “made a difference,” to borrow that inane phrase, insisted on a distinction between play and reality, however often it didn’t exist. In fact, the gains of many liberation movements depended on recognizing that the symbols that spectacles use as fodder are like peoples: they never entirely belong to what they’re attached to.
Osama bin Laden’s henchmen may have thought of the Twin Towers as signs of American power, but we can think of them as a place where thousands worked and died. The Bush Administration may want us to associate the “war on terror” with Iraq, but the facts don’t corroborate that linkage. Likewise, the Weathermen may have conceived a government building as a “symbol of injustice,” but blowing it up only destroyed that symbol if you believed in it in the first place. Meanwhile, the injustice remained.
The Weathermen let their theatrics — their faith in the fixed power and meaning of symbols — get the better of their politics. Though he’s making theater himself, Dorfman fails to notice the Weathermen’s own. Only their earnestness catches his attention. Same with himself. He hasn’t taken the full measure of absurdity of a man playing air guitar with another era’s already ungrounded aims. He seems to think he’s getting underneath its skin, rather than just piling on more costume.
Choreographers don’t have to engage in politics. In fact, it’s a notoriously hard assignment for dance, as dance’s scant use of words resists the specifics that bring alive political debate, driving the art instead toward the psychological and existential. But if dancemakers do take on the challenge — and the best art often moves against the grain of its medium — they better know what they’re talking about.
Self-reflection is also in order, with some kind of answer to the question, What does it mean to make theater about this historical moment?, embedded in the piece itself.

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