INCONSEQUENTIALITIES -- a sideways glance, an abrupt change of subject in a conversation, a brushoff -- have been making Shane O'Hara uncomfortable of late. A dance-theater artist and associate professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., O'Hara finds himself frequently at odds with what he sees as the growing conservatism of his college town and, farther afield, his country.
"It started with the flags," he explained recently. "After 9/11, they were everywhere. And I didn't have a flag. All of a sudden, I started to feel uneasy about this whole nationalism thing." That's when "Biting My Tongue" was born. The 35-minute solo is a meditation on the risks and rewards of speaking out, being assertive about one's opinions, taking a stand. The work is the centerpiece of O'Hara's "Biting My Tongue and Other Solo Adventures," a one-man dance concert he performs Saturday and Sunday at the cozy Jack Guidone Theater in Washington.
It's O'Hara's chance to step onto the proverbial soapbox and have his say about war, peace, politics and other facts of life. "When I was thinking about doing this concert in D.C., I knew I had to do it before the presidential election," he said. He hopes it will spur good old-fashioned civil debate. Issues of war and peace, O'Hara insisted, are essential to the upcoming election and to the health of American democracy. They must not be ignored. Especially since he has found friends and colleagues reluctant to expose their political beliefs: "People don't want to state what they feel: They're biting their tongues. They're not putting it out there and thinking about it, talking about it."
But O'Hara is. "Biting My Tongue" uses urbane gestures and movement motifs culled as much from the choreographer's theatrical background as from his dance training. Thematically it pairs neatly on the program with an earlier work that asserts the same politically liberal stance. "Wordgame, a Cartoon" was choreographed by mid-20th-century modern dance rebel Daniel Nagrin at the height of the Vietnam War. A section of the full-length "Peloponnesian Wars," it's an artistic and political salvo that Nagrin fired in 1968 amid the nationwide unrest on the home front that erupted while Americans were fighting and dying in Southeast Asia.
O'Hara, who has been learning selections from Nagrin's repertoire of solo choreography for two decades, noted, "It's one of Nagrin's most effective works. What I love about the piece is that it's still pertinent, and it's almost 40 years old. It's about people who use power -- word games. Specifically they use words and language to overcome and control others." Highly theatrical and bitingly sarcastic, "Wordgame" appears comically garish with its sight gags and freeze-frame poses, but the humor reflects the pointedly satiric, not easygoing laughs.
O'Hara is also premiering a work called "Sound Bites," which feels like a memorial for fallen Americans and Iraqis in the current conflict. "When we recently passed the death of the thousandth soldier," the choreographer said, "I thought there would be a big outcry. But in a week, the news was gone. People are dying daily -- soldiers, civilians, aid workers. . . . What I'm trying to get across is that the deaths don't even faze us. It's amazing how desensitized we've become." O'Hara won't hold his tongue any longer.
BITING MY TONGUE AND OTHER SOLO DANCE ADVENTURES -- Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 7, Jack Guidone Theater, Joy of Motion Dance Center, 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-362-3042.