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Dancing in the Dark

Jennifer Homans on Dance

Osama bin laden may have destroyed the World Trade Center, but he has saved American dance. I know this sounds a little grotesque; but so you would suppose, to hear the pronouncements of leading figures in the New York dance world. The response was loudest from the so-called "downtown" modern dancers clustered around Dance Theater Workshop, Danspace, and other venues supporting the work of emerging and experienced artists. On September 21, this community gathered for its annual awards ceremony, the "Bessies." It was quite an evening.

The event is certainly a worthy one. Modern dancers are notoriously underpaid and unrecognized, and the Bessies offer both acknowledgment and acclaim. Naturally, this year's event was colored by the tragedy that had taken place ten days earlier--but the news was not all bad. In the program notes, David White, the executive director of Dance Theater Workshop, offered some solace. For the better part of the past decade, he wrote, America had been "void of empathy" for the wars and the killing fields visited on "most of the world's population." But disaster had now hit in our own backyard, creating "an emotional state of emergency." Then came the kicker: in spite of the tragic losses, "downtown" art would now, finally, become "truly treacherous." "Create," he admonished, "as if your life depends on it." If danger sends artists to the coveted edge, then terrorism, White seemed to be saying, may rejuvenate the avant-garde.

The artists who took the podium to accept awards struggled to come to terms with the catastrophe. They said that they felt irrelevant, lost, uncertain. As the evening progressed, however, what began as mourning turned into a strange, almost celebratory re-living of the 1960s and the artistic movements that grew out of them. We sang "Amazing Grace" and swayed to the strains of "We Shall Overcome." We honored artists who had been instrumental in breaking with the conventions of modern dance: David Gordon and Lucinda Childs (both key figures in the Judson Church movement) and Katherine Dunham.

The Judson Church dancers insisted on process over performance; they promoted everyday movement over technical skill; they held their audiences in haughty disdain; they launched minimalism and contact improvisation; and they experimented (after Cunningham) with random movement, silence, and chance. Dunham, operating in a more anthropological key, studied Caribbean dance and ritual with scholarly seriousness and became a leader in African American dance. It was an exciting and interesting time, and the questions that these artists raised opened the floodgates to postmodernism in dance, with consequences to the present day.

The draw of the 1960s in the light of September is understandable. Here was a moment when art dovetailed with politics, in a great creative thrust that felt collective and real. Whether or not you like the dance innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no doubting their moral and political engagement. But comforting as that memory may be, the 1960s are remote to life now. Since the Judson Church days, much of American dance has become bogged down in post-post crises of bi-, tri-, multi-, and trans-relativism. This may now be an uncomfortable place to be. But we cannot escape our present difficulties by skipping over the wreckage of the past twenty years and retreating into a nostalgia-tinged past. Better to admit that now, today, much of American dance is aesthetically bankrupt, dead-ended, and drowning in solipsism.

Appropriately, it was the crass voice of dance-gone-identity-politics that jolted the Bessie audience out of its 1960s dream. Rennie Harris, director of the company Puremovement and a darling of the downtown dance scene, had this to say about the smoldering Twin Towers: "Hey, everything is okay; we have been purified; the planet wasn't supporting us; this is a cleansing moment." His company danced to enthusiastic cheers and wild applause--which makes it all the more disturbing that Harris's dances are violent, angry compendiums of hip-hop jargon and rap. Hard bodies hurtle through space with abusive force in a pitiless, unrelenting display of black "attitude" and street smarts. His work, like his thinking, is self-congratulatory, destructive, and unself-consciously nihilistic.

Is it too harsh to see Harris's current popularity as wreaking a fierce revenge on the 1960s? He has taken the ethics of that decade to a disquieting politically correct extreme: this is the supposed social life of the street, the pulse of African American popular culture made high art. (His latest piece, Rome & Jewels, is a "take" on Romeo and Juliet.) Add the self-help and ersatz Eastern spirituality of the 1980s and 1990s and you get Harris, fair and square. That he would see the destruction of the World Trade Center as some kind of apocalypse affirming his own spiritual worth is predictable. It is an "authentic" response from an artist so taken with his own "identity" that he no longer lives in the real world, street jive notwithstanding. Faced with the hard facts of exploding airplanes and falling buildings, Harris retreated--without a hint of shame--into the oblivion of New Age nihilism. His dances do the same. He has no political or aesthetic language to express empathy or even outrage.

The problem of language is important. Dance has been especially susceptible to postmodern jargon, with its ornate and incomprehensible assertions. Exegeses of the body as a "site" on which race, gender, imperialism, global capitalism, and all manner of "sexualities" might be "inscribed" or "enacted" have littered stages and filled academic bookshelves for a long time now. Before September 11, this nonsense was just depressing evidence of decadence and provincialism. But now the anti-rational, self-serving language of postmodernism seems more threatening, because it denies the existence of objective facts (those planes?) and rejects the possibility of moral absolutes. It esteems juxtapositions and elisions that elude rational criticism, in dance as in philosophy and politics. It is no longer admissible to say that a dance is "good" or "bad"; we can only explain its particular point of view.

The consequences of this intellectual collapse are insidious. In October, Bill T. Jones published an article in The New York Times about the impact of Osama bin Laden on dance. He argued that the AIDS crisis might offer clues, since that, too, was a "numbing, paralyzing crisis." AIDS? Disease and terror are both tragic, but surely they demand utterly different moral, political, and aesthetic responses. Disease is a germ that can kill. Terrorism is murder. Gender, ethnicity, and subjectivity may have been appropriate categories for understanding AIDS. But terror is different: it is objective, absolute, and socially indiscriminate.

And yet Jones conflates AIDS and terror as great misfortunes that can rescue us from the "aloof gestures of modernism" by inspiring a more expressive art in the "service of social change." At the end of his article, his voice rings out in a typical postmodern crescendo: "few other mediums besides dance will offer us such raw, non-commercial opportunity to witness live bodies negotiate the tyranny of the present and its minefield of unforeseen events." But "bodies" do not negotiate, people do; "the present" is not tyrannical, the Taliban are.

It would be a mistake to think that choreography is unaffected by the linguistic pomposity that has seeped into the ways we talk about dance. Consider Patricia Hoffbauer, a noted Brazilian dancer and choreographer who has been working in New York since 1984. The New York Times recently published a big spread on how the events of September have changed her approach to her work."Before," she explains, she had been deeply critical of the United States, in particular its policies in Latin America. But bin Laden showed her that America was really just a "big, stupid giant: instead of being a predator, it was this big bear being victimized, being hurt." Now Hoffbauer feels more American. She does not even disdain yuppies anymore. "Now I am part of the us." But don't be fooled: "before" and "after" are flip sides of the same teaching, that we are all victims now.

Hoffbauer's latest work, Over My Dead Body, is as confused as her talk. It was originally about stubbornness, she says, but after September the title seemed to her to suggest something more somber. How does this translate into dance? In fragments. To the usual postmodern compilation of styles--a little contact improvisation, a dose of release technique, a dollop of generic swoosh and swoop, a tease of speech and a twist of comic relief--she adds bin Laden- inspired bits and pieces:"Did they check your identity card today? They did mine." The result is awkward, lazy, and meaningless. Scenario follows scenario with no apparent overall structure. It is impossible to follow the thread. Movement fragments and verbal utterances can well be elements of art, but they must be fashioned into clearly crafted statements that make emotional and intellectual sense. The self-conscious "I am performing" quality of the Hoffbauer dancers is also embarrassing. Detachment works if it is turned to irony, but here it is just an attitude. Hoffbauer cites bin Laden's influence on her thinking, but I fear that the credit is hers alone.

The more conservative world of ballet has been less prone to postmodern inanities, but that has not saved it from its own form of solipsism. Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theater, opened his company's New York season on October 23 with a quaint morality tale. His dancers were on tour when the tragedy hit. He encouraged them to dance, not because the show must go on, but because they were now part of the "healing process." The dancers, he reported, displayed a renewed seriousness, a purpose larger than the cuts and bruises of their own careers.Splendid. But why does it take mass murder to make us serious?

The answer is simple: ballet in recent years has been steeped in sentimentality and feel-good dance.This was nowhere more evident than in ABT's gala event, "A Tribute to the American Spirit," which included the "Prayer" solo from Coppelia, Eliot Feld's Stars-and-Stripes romp Variations on America, Nacho Duato's Without Words, Lar Lubovich's My Funny Valentine, and other suitably patriotic excerpts by noted American choreographers. The evening was rounded off with Balanchine's exuberant and poetic Symphony in C.

It was all a well-intentioned attempt to honor a dark moment with the means at hand, but it rang false. "Prayer" is pure nineteenth-century French lyricism, and it had no place evoking the memory of those who leaped to their deaths from the World Trade Center. One felt sorry for Ashley Tuttle, who danced well, but what could she do with this strange non sequitur? Excerpts yanked out of context and re-deployed to address contemporary events are doomed to failure. Paloma Herrera hesitated and blushed when she realized the emotional weight on her shoulders as she paraded through Variations on America. The piety was thickly spread, and the dancers looked earnest and uncomfortable with their new assignment. The problem with sentimentality is that it is a narcotic: the audience is invited to wallow in contrived emotion, in the hope that it will brim over into something real. But it doesn't, and we leave the theater feeling full but dissatisfied. We are "glad" to have had "good" patriotic feelings, but deep down we know that we have been emotionally had. Is this really what we need to "heal"?

All of these people are serious artists doing their best to respond to a horrendous event. David White has done much to make New York dance vibrant. Bill T. Jones is a major force in his art form. Kevin McKenzie has succeeded in making ABT a world-class company again. But that is precisely why it is so disturbing that their reaction to this crisis shows such ingrained habits of mind. Good intentions are not enough, in politics or in art. But especially in art: dance, after all, is not under attack. We have the luxury to think carefully, clearly, rigorously. This is not just a moral obligation, but an aesthetic one.Dances and dancers must be held accountable: they must make sense, even when the sense they make undermines sense itself. We are moved by dances that are skillfully wrought, with strong, internally consistent foundations, not by empty emoting or political sloganeering.

Lest we forget that it can be done: in October, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, a Flemish choreographer in residence at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, brought Drumming to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This dance was not "about" the Twin Towers, and no mention was made of the attacks. But the context was there, as it always is these days, quietly among us all. The performance began with the curtain up. The dancers and the musicians were on stage doing nothing in particular. They were just there, ready, waiting to begin. The lighting was warm but perfectly neutral. The stage looked big and promising in a cool, detached, blank-page kind of way. The audience barely noticed the performers, and milled about getting seated. It was an unremarkable but utterly crucial beginning. A sure, unobtrusive intimacy was established.

Then the music began, Steve Reich's pulsating percussive score Drumming, which was written two decades ago. A woman in a white shift and a bright orange shirt ran in a wide arc across the stage and began to dance. The movement was natural, easy, and unself-conscious; except that it was complicated, fast, rhythmic, turned inside out, taken apart, and rebuilt before our eyes. It was based on release technique (loose, jointy movement made by letting muscles go rather than tightening or holding) infused with human warmth, dynamics, and breathtaking speed. Other dancers, mostly dressed in simple white garments, joined her. Each dancer had steps and patterns, which cut across each other in geometrically precise designs. They intersected, danced together, and went on.

It was busy and extremely impersonal, but we grew to care about them, got a feel for their ways without actually knowing anything about any given individual. The pace was relentless, the musicians came and went, the lighting shifted from warm gold to cool silver and back again. The dance unfolded spontaneously but inevitably. Then, all of a sudden, the orange-shirted woman reversed her arc across the stage. As she ran, a glorious deep orange carpet rolled out behind her. In an instant, she dropped her orange shirt on the carpet and it was swallowed up in the light as if it had never been; she turned to look back. Nothing there. Blackout.

The standing ovation was spontaneous. The emotions were real. For that hour, nothing else mattered, and you could feel the elevated pulse of the audience leaving the theater. We had seen a dance so completely and compellingly set forth that it seemed like a phenomenon of nature. And there is a postscript. Drumming was made from material used in an earlier dance by De Keersmaeker, Just Before. The theme of Just Before was loss and memory. Drumming is strictly formal, but the tone and experience of the earlier work seeped through. This has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, of course; but in the hands of De Keersmaeker and her dancers, coincidence took on the urgency of necessity.

September 11 certainly has focused our minds, and some things, at least, are clearer than they were before. It is now possible to say, with a new conviction, that nostalgia, sentimentality, and postmodern narcissism make for inadequate and spiritually vacant art. We do not need dances that touch us because we "identify" with their politics; nor do we need to be plunged into vast seas of vague feeling. We need to speak, think, and dance with rigor and lucidity. Enough with forced artifice and the cowering aesthetics of "representation" and detachment. We need art, classical or otherwise, that is human and true.

Jennifer Homans is the dance critic for The New Republic.