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.
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary