Dance: 'Wallstories,' 'Fondly Do We Hope' and 'Island'

Sarah Kaufman on the Dances: 'Wallstories,' 'Fondly Do We Hope' and 'Island'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

Freedom of movement has often been fraught with drama. Who gets to move about and why, and who does not -- these questions have sparked invasions, wars, racial and ethnic discrimination, border controls.

Moving freely can be a political act. It can also be metaphoric. Sometimes it can be both.

Midnight, Oct. 3, 1990: The border separating East and West Germany officially dissolved, and young Berliners celebrated by shoving themselves through the Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the political divide ever since it had been closed off by the Berlin Wall. I was living in Germany at the time and was part of that stampeding crowd, marking passage to a new era in an especially physical way.

The simplest human actions -- walking freely, kissing in public, sitting rather than giving up one's seat on a bus -- can make a statement about political reality and its effect on the ordinary person in a way that words cannot. Modern dance choreographers have understood this as well as any human-rights campaigner. Countless dance works over the years have strived for political as well as artistic relevance, and the best still speak to us because in them we recognize our own behaviors of restriction, defiance and triumph. In the 1930s, Martha Graham distilled the suffering brought on by the Spanish Civil War in "Deep Song." In the '40s, Pearl Primus skewered racism in "Strange Fruit." More recently, Mark Morris combined elements of Balkan folk dances with his own choreography in "The Office" (1994), suggesting the human cost as well as the devastating efficiency of the war in Bosnia.

Dance motivated by politics or topical events hasn't been fashionable lately, however. At a time when funding is tight, this kind of research- and concept-intensive art is more time-consuming to create and costlier than, say, an abstract response to a piece of music. And, it must be said, the risk of turning out something foolish is pretty high. Bad topical art can come off as a game of charades.

But within the past month, three fascinating world premieres have tackled historical moments, using movement as political as well as poetic expression. Last month at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, Bill T. Jones, the prominent New York-based choreographer and veteran provocateur, unveiled a meditation on Abraham Lincoln called "Fondly Do We Hope . . . Fervently Do We Pray," commissioned by the festival to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, and which the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company is now touring. (There are no plans yet to bring it to Washington.) Two smaller-scale works, both by local artists, opened recently at Dance Place's black-box theater in Northeast D.C. Earlier this month, Nejla Yatkin, a Berlin native, marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with "Wallstories," and last week Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. depicted the hard lot of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s, who were held at the Angel Island detention center off the coast of San Francisco, in "Island."

Each of these choreographers created a work of multimedia dance theater. If you're evoking a distant place or time period, films, photos and text are handy tools to use. But in each case, the work's success wasn't just a matter of how well sourced and imaginatively designed it was. All of these pieces, so vastly different from one another, hooked you in the same way: in their focus on the body. A woman confined to an auction block; a man fenced in by the dancers around him; a detainee's crumpled posture -- these were all reflections of who gets to move and who doesn't, and these images spoke of the individual impact of political events as well as any artifact of the historical record.

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At 90 minutes, Jones's work was the longest of the three; it was also the most technology heavy and expensively produced. Overall, though, it felt scattershot, as if Jones needed a dose of Adderall to bring the piece into focus. There was an actor declaiming bits of Lincoln speeches and Walt Whitman poetry. There were projections of Lincoln in silhouette and of inspirational text. There were folk songs, a rock band and occasionally the whistle of a train. Sometimes the dancers whirled around inside a semi-transparent circle of drapes; at others they danced in full view on a thrust stage. JumboTron-type screens projected their images to the rear of Ravinia's open-air theater.

Jones's single strongest idea was his use of the body. The piece opened with an absolutely gorgeous solo in which the dancer hardly moved from one spot but arced and swooped her torso to show us its every surface, rotating herself slowly like a jewel catching the light. Here was, to be sure, a flesh-and-blood woman, but in her self-absorbed, dispassionate display, she came to seem like an object. An art object. Meanwhile, a child's voice recited the anatomical checklist contained within Whitman's "Poem of the Body" (better known by its later title "I Sing the Body Electric"), an enraptured ode to the human body as the great equalizer of all mankind: "Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears/Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye . . . "

This scene is repeated later, only now a male actor onstage is reciting the same lines with an auctioneer's gestures as the dancer reprises her solo, and Whitman's words segue, chillingly, into a staccato call for bids. The dancer's slow exhibition of her parts is the same, but as the context changes, so does the way we read the body. Here, it is confined for inspection; the art object has become property, up for sale.

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