On the list of possible subjects for a dance performance, the Nuremberg trials have got to be near the bottom. The rehashing of Nazi brutalities, the years of courtroom testimony, the meting out of death sentences -- a grim film, maybe (oh, wait, there was one), or a blood-splattered postmodern painting, perhaps. But a dance?
The lofty minds at Harvard Law School thought this would be an excellent idea, and we have them to thank for "Small Dances About Big Ideas," a sincere if muddled attempt at realizing the historic war-crimes tribunal in movement. Choreographed by Liz Lerman -- no stranger to Big Ideas, having delved into the human genome project and nuclear waste, to name a few -- it was performed Wednesday night by her Takoma Park-based troupe the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium.
Since when is Harvard Law School in the business of commissioning dance, you ask? Well, since not too long ago, when one of its law professors asked Lerman to create a work for a conference on the legacy of the Nuremberg trials, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Allied-led forum that held dozens of German officials accountable for World War II atrocities. The work premiered last week in Boston. The Library of Congress presented it as part of its Veterans History Project, an archive of wartime stories. The performance also made a timely Veterans Day tribute.
Lerman expands her reach beyond what happened in the four years that the trials took place in the German city where Hitler had held annual congresses. She ponders the Nazis' central aim -- the extermination of a people -- and folds in contemporary examples of genocidal barbarism in Rwanda and Bosnia. She reaches back into Norse mythology to draw out the Norns, three ancient goddesses of destiny, for whom Nuremberg was named.
Lerman also summons the figure of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term "genocide," imagining him as a tireless activist turned disregarded witness to ongoing massacres.
It's a rather dense affair, as you can imagine. Time and setting are fluid. Abstract images mix with characters and their narrated stories.
Dancers in their sixties and seventies share duties with those in their twenties (Lerman's special hallmark), which bolsters the idea of the cast's representing a full range of humanity. But from the beginning, there is an off-putting melodramatic quality to the work: There is the sound of rain, of boots marching, of roaring airplanes and sharply barked German.
Three women wrapped in shawls creep around looking scared. (You might take them for bereaved mothers, but it turns out they are the Norns, mourning what has happened to their land.) Other dancers rush downstage and fall as gunshots sound. They get up and get shot, over and over.
It all looked like a school-play depiction of the war, down to the exaggerated, slow-motion collapse of the dying. Maybe Lerman was making a point about the imagined look of war vs. what really happens. Whatever her intention, it was a relief when the cliches were abandoned.
The decor -- a few rectangular boxes and some chairs -- was hastily rearranged into a modified court. A tall dancer in a black robe -- a judge -- approached his desk with a wonderful little dance of trepidation, as if frightened at having to render a decision. We were introduced to Lemkin, full of nervous energy. There was a scene in which the performers dance with crutches, and another in which a woman throws herself repeatedly onto the judge's desk, is pushed away like crumbs from the dinner table, and ultimately crouches in grim triumph right on the man's head.
Meanwhile, Peter DiMuro, the company's artistic director who served as narrator, had been telling us how rape finally came to be classified as a war crime.
But the fragments never came to a boil; rather, "Small Dances" felt fractured and random. Any momentum was constantly interrupted. Not halfway through, DiMuro stepped forward and brought the house lights up.
He asked everyone in the audience to turn to a neighbor and discuss whatever had been the most "shocking" images so far. Then he wanted to be told what those moments were. This is classic Lerman -- breaking the wall down, so the public is not just observing, it's participating, like it or not. But it felt like fishing for compliments, a discomfiting notion in a work that had suddenly become about itself rather than about the judgment at Nuremberg, and the human consequence of ongoing evil.
As her extensive program notes demonstrate, Lerman was inspired by heaps of source material, current events and political observations. But in the effort to touch on all those issues, she gave up emotional ground.
The closing image was devastatingly apt: Stacks of papers were spilled onto the floor, leaving a huge mess. Then darkness.