Wham! Zip! A Political Cartoon Rendered in the Third Dimension
Somebody call Warner Brothers: one of the Looney Tunes has flown the coop. Such was the tenor of half of “Biting My Tongue,” an evening of solo dancing from the aggressively rambunctious performer, Shane O’Hara. His program included four pieces that seemed proportionally influenced by the current state of the world, Chaplin in his “Great Dictator” mode, and vaudevillian miming. After a dyad of witty gambols—pitched at politically charged inflections—Mr. O’Hara began to resemble an illustration by the World War II propagandist Ed Pranger, brought to farcically lyrical life.
Over the course of this physically demanding, but only fitfully engaging performance, one could not escape the feeling that the choreographer’s reach extended beyond the grasp of his choreography. Conscientious and passionate, he made no illusions about his stance on the present U.S. government, and opted instead to distort the dancing with startling literal-mindedness. Good intentions notwithstanding, often the motions were compromised by the emotions within.
“A Day in the Life of My Brain” brought Mr. O’Hara center stage, decked out in patriotic bunting—a firecracker if ever there was one. He sprang around cheekily to Katsumi Shigeru’s rubbery score (featuring snorts and mewls that sounded like a goose and a cat engaged in fisticuffs). Personifying the sound effects, he was a blissful sight, bending, twisting, and contorting in place. He bounded across the space of the theatre in frenzied starts, embodying the manic warping of American values.
At times, Mr. O’Hara brought to mind the clown prince of the contemporary theatre, Bill Irwin. He doesn’t have Mr. Irwin’s elastic frame, but boasts a wellspring of comic potential and energy. When this first work ended, the performer stood, ramrod-straight, in suspended animation. It felt unerringly right on: the logical conclusion would be for this character to stand—not sit—still.
Next came a sobering, jarringly out of place, interpretive dance clogged with the verbalized accounts of casualties of the current administration’s path to war in the Middle East. In this piece, titled “Sound Bite,” Mr. O’Hara placed items that symbolized the victims of collateral damage diagonally along the floor. Among them were a female pilot who had crash-dived, a suicidal veteran suffering post-war syndrome and a woman with unborn child who was killed by a misfired rocket.
Reacting to William Osborne’s maudlin music, Mr. O’Hara made chopping gestures over the imagery (a pair of white high heels, a metal cooking bowl, a bottle of beer), then knelt before them, wrenching his head back and twisting his face into a rictus of despair. As the lights faded, he collected the detritus and trundled offstage carrying, it would seem, the weight of the world. In spite of the measured spareness, drawn in shadow, it was a bloated, prosaic picture. The overall effect was alternately morose and clumsy. It had the air of self-importance that frequently occurs when art mistakes itself for a medium whose task is solely to proselytize. The film director Steven Spielberg’s similarly ill-conceived “Empire of the Sun,” also got tangled up in sentiment.
The tone was hewn back to satire with the playfully subversive “Wordgame: A Cartoon,” thanks to the still-innovative choreography that was originally created in 1968 by Daniel Nagrin, a trailblazer in American modern dance. The work, initially a response to a nation wracked with disillusionment in its leaders. (Americans were battling on two different fronts during the Vietnam War: soldiers in Southeast Asia and protestors in the Nation’s capital.) Mr. O’Hara reconstructed the piece as a present-day corollary with glaring parallels.
Portraying a grossly disingenuous head of state (clearly modeled after Richard Nixon, but sharply tailored to the denser contours of George W. Bush), the performer imagined the machinations a War President goes through in order to manipulate his country into supporting his cause. Throughout the stage business, which placed this character behind the controls of a great engine of noise, Mr. O’Hara would pause with the abrupt silences in the music, suggesting the frequency of, and dishonesty in, a photo-op. Snapshots of the figure jutting his arms out the way President Nixon did on the steps of his helicopter before leaving office were unmistakably 1968. Frozen moments depicting the figure turned around and scratching his derrière, flipping coins and distracting the masses with the drop of a few dollars, felt unnervingly today.
A corker of a mime sequence, “Wordgame,” was Chaplinesque in structure, with a sensory advantage: the addition of sound. Juxtaposed against Mr. Nagrin’s recorded mosaic of nonsense and disproportionately inflated rhetoric, Mr. O’Hara found a natural rhythm that gained poignancy when what was seen and heard went off track. It was difficult not to make a sardonic chuckle (that left a bitter taste in the mouth) at the sight of the dictator pulling a few bucks out of his pockets and letting them flutter to the floor with the sound of detonating bombs.
The final work of the performance was its main course, and the crux of Mr. O’Hara’s show was, regardless of the narration, by far the most abstract. Draped in a knee-length purple coat with red, white and blue lining, he set up about a dozen tiny flags, murmuring, “I bite my tongue. I say nothing—you never know who’s listening.” He made baby sounds, sounding out the words “mouth” and “story,” before whipping into a rant about attending a high school dance in the late seventies and meeting a girl who could not offer her hand to him because she had none. This truncated vignette, of a sort, derived somehow from a story involving the stiflingly patriotic chain store Wal-Mart, his son, and the growing national affinity for the flag. It was clear by evening’s end that from the tri-color spectrum that makes up Old Glory, Mr. O’Hara chose to tint his work primarily with the blues.
“Biting My Tongue” was devised as a war cry (as it were) against the current confusion between patriotism and narrow-mindedness. Playing against Mitchell Mercurio’s shifting arpeggiated guitar work, he collected the flags and scattered them across the stage, he chased and wrestled with three microphones strategically presented either just out of reach or inoperable. The result was an impersonation of an American (and, by implication, an America) without a free voice. The impact was suffocated by Mr. O’Hara’s apparent need to pound his points down rather than let them influence by their own resonance.
As a satirist, Shane O’Hara had no difficulty treading the line between what’s funny and what’s funny. As a dramatist, he never found a steady course to stick to. It’s a delicate balance to integrate the two, and thrilling to witness when carefully executed, as the “dance theatre installation artist” Mary Armentrout demonstrated last July in her one-woman show entitled “Solo Musings.” Whereas Ms. Armentrout used the malleable properties of modern dance to represent her (and eventually, our own) fears and impressions of the state of the world, Mr. O’Hara seemed to have less faith in his material (or worse, in his audience). This was unfortunate, because one could sympathize with the choreographer’s aversion to manipulation, and yet feel the resolute force of being manipulated by him. The message in “Biting My Tongue” wasn’t hypocritical so much as it was offset. Perhaps most disheartening, the departing sentiment of the performance cast a pall over the loony-tunefulness of a familiar slogan. That’s all, folks.
Dancer: Shane O'Hara in his "A Day in the Life of my Brain". Photo: Richard Finkelstein