The Spin Room
13 invocations for World Peace
"Just because you don't take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you." — Cicero
My earliest memory is of my father voting in a polling booth in the basement of our New York City apartment building, several years before we high-tailed it to the suburbs. It was a biting grey November day and I was a very tiny girl, dressed in ballooning winter pants and little coat and tight wool hat knitted by Irish great aunt who lived with my bachelor uncles in the building next door. My mittens were clipped to my coat sleeves and hung at my side. I stood alone in the middle of the room, eye-level to the lower legs of mysterious grown-ups hiding behind curtains in small booths, keeping a close watch on my father's pant legs. My father, son of a New York city groom-turned-chauffeur, proletarian to his bones, had risen to become an accountant with a successful small business of his own. Still he continued to believe in the rigid conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church in which he was so rigorously schooled and in a world of hard work without end. He had been to the Philippines, Australia and New Guinea in World War Ii and he was pulling the lever for General Eisenhower—I knew little then, but I already knew that, and maybe it was on that day that I began to understand that politics mattered.
This is one of the nastiest and most vicious political years the United States has known in generations, and as Cicero suggests, politics will take an interest in us whether or not we take an interest in it. There are few in the Bay Area who growlingly meet politics with the open arms of Krissy Keefer, which Ms. Keefer is doing at Somarts through November 2 along with Keith Hennessey and his Circo Zero. But last week politically savvy Margaret Jenkins (daughter of a renowned left-wing labor organizer) herself commented on political life in a work she entitled "Danger Orange" set outdoors in the Justin Herman Plaza below the Hyatt Hotel and high rise aeries of powerful law firms and other businesses in downtown San Francisco. She asked permission from plaza fountain sculptor, the elderly Francois Vaillancourt, to wrap his agglomeration of rectilinear concrete pipes in orange a la Christo. And on Sunday, when I drove over for the 1:30pm show, although I learned that, despite the lull in the storm, the performance had been cancelled, the fountain was still orange. Whether the many passersby at the San Francisco Farmer's Market across the street understood the intent, the orange sent its signal: the Bush administration, with John Ashcroft as its messenger, has wrapped us in propaganda and ratcheted up the world's danger by a chilling factor yet to be determined.
For their own part, Krissy Keefer, co-founder of the Dance Brigade, and Keith Hennessey, formerly of Contraband and now of Circo Zero, have little difficulty meeting the devil at the door of the spin room. With varying degrees of success, for the last two weeks and continuing until election day, they are installed further south in the city, trying to tell us through agit prop, or circus nouveau, or feminist ritual, what the devil is really up to. Playing at Somarts (where a sometimes provocative, sometimes lackadaisical Day of the Dead installation is on show) they call their collaboration "Spell, 13 invocations for World Peace." In many ways the production is comforting and even humorous: no one in the dance scene touches the ugly pus-filled truths of politics with the irony and fury of Ms. Keefer, and Mr. Hennessey and company make ritual inseparable from a sexy life-affirming corporeality.
But are pagan ritual, spell making and the invocation of Pan enough for the task?
In the early 1930's, Lucas Hoving was part of a Dutch troupe started by the choreographer Florrie Rodrigo, a communist, a Jew, and a prominent figure in Amsterdam cultural life. Ms. Rodrigo's work was pro-worker, and topical, one piece highlighting a brutal bombing of mutinous sailors by the Dutch government which was subsequently covered up, another an anti-concentration camp dance, long before the world claimed to know such camps existed. By 1936 Brown Shirts began appearing at concerts and throwing bottles at the dancers on stage while verbally threatening them. With a growing fascist presence in Holland, the company fled to Brussels, but before long disbanded altogether as Nazism spread across Europe. It is almost impossible to imagine theatrical performance being such a threat today, unless by performance we mean a flash of a young brown breast at half-time (Janet Jackson) or a girl to girl kiss (i.e. Madonna and Britney) on t.v. In our current world where the snuff film has weirdly transmuted into real-time televised beheadings, it is hard to conceive of any dance with the force to shock the power holders or their minions.
Such artistic impotence is a blessing and a curse. Generally the role of art isn't to propagandize, which would reduce it to the temporality of journalism, but to reveal the eternal and universal underbelly within the specific historical moment of the artist. How surreal and shocking it would have been had right wing thugs appeared last night to keep Mr. Hennessey's head under water as he tried to surface from his steel tub as the incarnation of Water. It would have been alarming in the extreme had someone in the audience hurled dangerous objects at Ms. Keefer as she fervidly embodied another wicked witch, this one Hekate, goddess of the underworld, caster of spells. We were all fellow travelers. There were no enemies on site. Had Tom DeLay sat through the show he might have called in the purity squad, but DeLay is far more likely to go to prison for his political crimes than he is to visit a seedy block of San Francisco to censor a new age performance with semi-nudity.
Circo Zero began "Spell" in the recently rain-soaked alley adjacent to Somarts, and it embraced a Dionsysianism deeply reminiscent of the Contraband aesthetic (not to mention Woodstock), especially in the production's by now familiar use of water and fire. They also called upon the crowd to perform a "trust" exercise. Calling on a line of attendees to pull a rope until he was first 6 then 30 feet above a platform, Mr. Hennessey then engaged in a sometimes witty monologue as he circus-roped his way back down.
But neither the pagan ritual that had Seth Eisen, Susan Voyticky, Tamara Li, Mr. Hennessey and Paradox Pollack decked only in skirts circling in another tub of hot water, nor the monologues, freighted with remarks like: "No one wins the race to the bottom," or, "The holiday of the dead has been replaced by an endless holiday of killing," were especially incendiary. Sex, drugs and rock and roll didn't revolutionize the world in the way many people hoped 36 years ago, although it did loosen plenty of social strictures, which is part of what fuels the right wing's counter-revolution today. But what makes us think new age ritual is any closer to bringing us peace, love, and material well-being for all?
It's not, and it can seem trite set against the fevered reality chronicled in each day's newspapers. Yet, as the roar of the freeway nearly drowned them out, Mr. Hennessey and company were keeping alive a wild innocence that is itself a challenge to the radical right wing upsurge in US political life, and they do it through a childlike belief in the redemptive power of instinct and a commitment to freeform expression. Lucas Hoving, who moved to the Bay Area late in life, himself loved Mr. Hennessey, Jess Curtis and Sarah Shelton Mann. He saw his own experimental past in them, but whether he would have found their invocation of the elements revolutionary enough for the current battle is unclear.
Krissy Keefer is a radical, visionary feminist who devours news and can talk with fevered, even panicked, eloquence about global warming, fanatical politicians like former Representative Tom Coburn, now running for the U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, who believes women who have had abortions should be put to death (line up ladies), among a host of other issues, like oil, oligarchies and the destruction of the environment. Following the outdoor portion of the performance, the audience was ushered in to the performance space of Somarts, where Ms. Keefer unleashed her apocalyptic vision as visionary Hekate with irony, fury and well-timed humor. It made Mark Morris' offerings across the Bay seem positively tepid (except for the music, they were).
With her team of fellow witches (Karen Elliot, Lena Gatchalian, Kimberly Valmore, Tina Banchero, Sara Bush and Richelle Donigan) Ms. Keefer as Hekate, (whom she defines as Queen of the Witches and rotting goddess of decomposition, darkness and renewal), once again offered up a vision of female fury and prophetic wisdom to counter the ferocious anti-female alignment of right wing fundamentalist religious forces around the globe. Where the troupe was most successful was when Ms. Keefer was monologist. Drawing from such texts as "The Rotting Goddess" by Jacob Rabinowitz and others, she presented a scenario of a world rotting in order to be renewed. And just before things got too lugubrious or portentous she would with her deft timing quip: "Where's Martha Stewart when we need her?"
Ms. Keefer frolicked in dirt and leaves against Joe William's powerful projected video backdrop of swarming bees or dried leaves. She talked about the ends of things, of justice lovers taking back power (exactly when such folks had power is unclear). In her litany she suggested such evildoers as Monsanto, Disney and others would go the way of the dinosaur. No more genetically engineered potatoes? No more Mickey Mouse? What a lovely dream, and, indeed, someday it will come true.
In all, she did what she does so well: turn commonly accepted reality on its head to show the true, terrifying order of the world and the profound misogyny at its core. The often haunting original music was played by the trio of Copper Wimmin (Sophie Mallie, Tenaya Wallach and Alyx Benham). Lynda Rieman gets credit for the marvelous lighting.
What was less effective was the witch chorus's role, whether sweeping leaves, pounding taiko drums or engaged with swords in less than exact or exacting martial arts phrases. These are patterns which in some cases date back to Dance Brigade's "Cinderella, A Tale of Survival". They have none of Pina Bausch's essentialized symbolism and have become predictable filler rather than amphetamine jolts that raise the heartbeat on the problems Ms. Keefer aptly lays out.
Which brings me to the question confronting politicized dance: what physical vocabulary can express the outrages of war and villainy, sorrow and benightedness, and the hope of redemption, pagan or otherwise? As fascism rose in Europe, choreographers relied heavily on von Laban's work along with the homely traditions of vaudeville, something Pina Bausch resurrected and furthered. A friend who saw Preljocaj's "N" this summer in Aix en Provence noted his solution—he aptly juxtaposed Abu Ghraib symbols of utter brutality with deep tenderness all through the use of gesture and movement. Since Brecht, choreographers have employed repetition as a means to arrive at various states of transformation. But what of the physical language itself? It no longer seems enough to invoke the gods and goddesses, to sweep away the leaves, or to hang from trees when 380 tons of explosives, small amounts of which are enough to catalyze nuclear reactions, have been lifted under the eyes of the hubristic U.S. forces in Iraq. These are desperate times. And while "Spell" was like a satisfying evening out with a friend whose politics you share, I yearn for movement that all by itself can embody the dire trouble we're in while dipping into the eternal river of life that no war, no blindness and no amount of greed can divert.