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

But the shame of slavery isn't Jones's only point here. He brings the scene back a third time, and the dancer's solo and the recited list of body parts now merges with text from contemporary torture manuals -- "water poured over nose and mouth," "collar around the head" -- linking what was done to slaves in Lincoln's era to what has been done to prisoners in our own time. The question Jones raises is this: Have we come that far in how we regard the human body? Doesn't how we treat the body -- anybody's body -- speak to the depth of our humanity? Thinking back on that solo at the beginning, where the dancer was virtually tethered in place, moving to the extent that she could but with a sense of cool, disengaged obedience, I think Jones was making a larger point about our society -- and Lincoln's legacy -- today. This wasn't a picture of moving freely, or of freedom. It was a picture of going through the motions.

Jones creates rich, stylistically hybrid theater experiences, often with complicated narratives. Clarity isn't his goal so much as an absorbing emotional experience. But even by that standard, "Fondly Do We Hope" was unwieldy. Chasing the poetics of Lincoln took the piece in too many directions -- Jones delved into his love affair with Mary, his guilt over the war dead, his fondness for Shakespeare and the irony that he died by a Shakespearean actor's hand, and whether his government of the people, by the people, and for the people exists today as he intended.

"Fondly Do We Hope" doesn't sock you in the gut. But that one gleaming image, the body as unrealized potential, vulnerable and reined in, a mirror of our attitudes and beliefs, told a profound truth.

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Though she operates on a much smaller scale, Yatkin, a strikingly tall dancer of Turkish descent, is like Jones known for richly theatrical works that can be heavy on symbolism and mystery. But with its bracing clarity and restraint, "Wallstories," an hour-long piece for eight dancers, was a welcome departure. It begins with a joke, a satirical track by the comedy songwriting team Larsen and Sherman ("Just keep that wall/Steady and tall/And the Reds in East Berlin") that accompanies the dancers in a tipsy waltz. They then fall into a hearty line dance that gradually grows rigid, militaristic and wall-like, suggesting that Berlin's true barrier wasn't a matter of cement but of cold, hard human decisions.

They were selectively cold, of course; the bureaucrats could be lovely to each other, as Yatkin reminds us with her backdrop. It's a giant photo of East German leader Erich Honecker kissing Leonid Brezhnev, his Soviet counterpart. It looms over another kiss: Oblivious -- willfully, it appears -- to the human wall forming around them, two dancers are locked in an ardent embrace. While they're kissing, the couple is also firing soap bubbles overhead from gun-shaped bubble blowers; it's whimsical and creepy all at once.

The strength of this piece lay in Yatkin's smart use of just a few actions and gestures that evoked the denial and the physical and emotional suppression of the times. In one section, one of the male dancers thrashes about like a hooked trout as the other dancers surround him and ever so slowly close in around him. In another, a woman walks shakily across the shoulders of four men. They're standing right up against the rear wall of the space, and from her high perch the woman runs her hands over the cinderblocks, searching for something -- a crack or an opening. Pink Floyd's "Is There Anybody Out There?" accompanies this scene, and it's another tribute to the astute spareness of Yatkin's choreography that the song doesn't pile on too much pathos. Pink Floyd recordings accompanied much of the piece, a nod to the 1990 concert in Berlin inspired by the group's rock opera "The Wall," and which commemorated the fall of Berlin's wall. Yatkin recalled that concert and her personal memories of the city's vastly different halves in a voice-over later in the work. But the most powerful moment remained that image of a brave, wobbly woman looking for a way out. We're struck by the immensity of the barrier, and the futility of one fragile and precariously positioned person trying to surmount it, even with a support system.

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Burgess's "Island," at 30 minutes long, was the shortest and most cohesive of the three. Granted, his ambitions were also more modest than Jones's and Yatkin's, whose works were meant to stand alone. "Island" was only part of an evening, the second of two works on his company's program. "Fondly Do We Hope" and "Wallstories" unspooled in vignettes, but "Island" had a linear plotline. In it, a group of immigrants leave China and arrive at Angel Island; they are abused by the guards and one of them dies. The others are eventually freed on American soil, and the piece ends with them walking purposefully up the center aisle.

The stylized simplicity that characterizes Burgess's work was especially effective here. The movement wasn't naturalistic, but in the visual acuteness of it -- the reach of an arm, or a sharp fold in the knees -- the immigrants' emotional journey was as clear as ink on paper, from their resolute departure to the collapsed spirits of imprisonment to the square-shouldered determination that their ordeal wouldn't be in vain.

The sense of confinement was so sharp you felt it in your seat. Most of the performance took place within the cell-like dimensions of a white rectangle taped to the floor. This also functioned as a screen for projections of Chinese graffiti that had been carved into the detainment center's walls, its in-your-face defiance in no need of translation. Images of waves and a cracked, stained concrete floor were also shown. (Sarah Brown, MIT's director of theater design, created the poignant visual display.) After the one inmate's beating death, the others covered her with a white sheet, upon which grainy life-size photos of actual inmates were projected, one by one, swimming into focus on the mounded-up fabric with such a piercing immediacy that you gasped. Under the shroud, the three dimensions of the performer's body lent texture and substance to the archival images, bringing them to life. Here was an artistic statement that hit you in the gut.

After each of these premieres, at Ravinia as well as at Dance Place, the artists came onstage to take questions from the audience. This isn't unusual in itself, but the number of folks who stayed was. In each case, it seemed like a majority of the house wanted to hear more about the work, the creative process and the intent behind it. The talk-backs became impromptu town hall meetings on the topic. "I felt ashamed," said one woman to Burgess the night of his premiere, "ashamed that this happened and I never knew about it."

Clearly, there's an appetite for works like these. We should see more of them. In an era as hungry for knowledge and information as ours, and for explanation and commentary, art that is about more than sensation, more than entertainment, more than escape feels especially substantial, and satisfying. However abstract their parts, however fragmented the form, these three works all told a story of human events in a way that only art focused on the body can do. They brought forth not only the voices of the oppressed, the stigmatized and the just plain ordinary, but their actions and experiences, too. They showed us what history felt like.


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