writers on dancing


Of Polar Bears and Slippery Floors;
a Cri de Coeur on Global Warming

ODC unplugged
"On A Train Heading South" by Brenda Way
ODC Theater
San Francisco, California
January 17, 2005

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2005 by Ann Murphy

I heard a story a month ago that was like a grim tale from the Inuit, a tragic, beautifully eerie omen. It was this: scientists, researching the retreat of the Polar ice caps discovered that the physical conditions in the North have changed due to a rise in seasonal temperatures. The effect on polar bears has been disastrous. Early in the winter, female polar bears dig dens in snow drifts and inside these simple white temples, they give birth to pups, usually twins the size of guinea pigs. Together, mother and babies wait out the worst of the frozen winter while the pups grow. This year, however, rain fell more abundantly, the air was warmer, and the snow wetter than it has ever been known to be. As a consequence, the mother bears’ architecture fared badly. Just as cement mixed in a flawed ratio of sand and water is unstable, the snow was too wet and thus too heavy to hold. The lairs collapsed. An unknown number of mothers and their pups suffocated.

It is a story of allegorical import and urgency. What would a butoh troupe do with it? What about Pina Bausch? Should I ask my friend to paint it? While miners once brought a canary into the mine and knew there were deadly gases present when the bird keeled over, the polar bear, I thought, is sending the world a similar signal. We’d better take note.

Brenda Way was already on the case.

On a recent Monday night at one of ODC’s preview showings of ODC Unplugged, Way unveiled her "three-quarter’s done" premiere called "On A Train Heading South." It is a cri de coeur about global warming. It will premiere in the company's spring run which begins March 3.

Way is a choreographer with two seemingly distinct sides—the pure dance choreographer concerned with pattern, physical effort, musicality and sensual release; and the social choreographer who wraps movement around historical, literary or sociological ideas, very often with a feminist core. On the pure dance side she has explored the emotional underbelly of exacting classical work in such pieces as "Investigating Grace" to Bach’s "Goldberg Variations," as exquisitely played by Glen Gould, and "Fiendish Variations" to Bach’s "Passacaglia." On the social side she’s brought us such works as "Spectral Evidence" about witch hunts and diagnoses of female hysteria, or "Western Women," inspired by pioneer women’s diaries.

But "Head South" reveals no hint of the divided choreographer.

In what has become one of the best lecture dems on the dance circuit, Way last Sunday began by telling her capacity audience that global warming has "hugely profound importance" to her. She believes, and few could dispute her, that it is the ultimate political issue of our time, since it threatens the future not only of polar bears, birds and trees, but of the human species as well. If you didn’t know Way’s political leanings before, you soon found out when, in her inimitably witty and biting manner, she pegged the problem to a political structure wedded to greed, consumption, conformity, "weapons of mass distraction" and a general somnolence of the part of the citizenry. It is also a system, she noted, that increasingly relies on a kind of Orwellian strategy to call something its opposite and thus confuse us. Take the Clear Skies Initiative, designed to declaw the Clean Air Act of 1990. The legislation’s point is to free corporations from once tight pollution controls, and in so doing is hastening the melt-off of the glaciers (see Then, to handle the little problem of pr, Way noted, the government trots out a scientist or two to proclaim that global warming is just "weather." Meanwhile, thousands of scientists across the globe have irrefutable evidence that global warming is here and its threat is dire.

As the choreographer showed us the building blocks of the work, we began to get a look at how she set about fusing the conceptual dimension of this seemingly undanceable topic with pure physical and rhythmic pattern. First, she asked the dancers to kinetically describe the ODC studio environment where they work. Private Freeman captured the ripples of the room’s curtains with a deliciously languorous undulation that wiggled through his whole torso. He turned the movement of the clock into linear, rhythmic divisions of space. A ladder became a series of horizontal, stepping angles made by the forearm. And the bricks of the back wall developed into a checkered pecking action by the head as the body traveled sideways through space. The point, of course, was that we are inseparable from our physical environment, and it was in this material that Way found the substructure—the kinesthetic and rhythmic environment--for the dance.

From there, Way had the dancers develop movement from idioms like "worst case scenario," "hide your head in the sand," "come in out of the (acid) rain." This was the social part, the cliches we live. But as though Way understood she needed a device to fuse the two tendencies in herself, to link the objective environment with the subjective people who inhabit it, she added a mythic figure in the form of the Greek Cassandra. As you’ll recall, Cassandra was a daughter of King Priam and a beautiful prophetess loved by Apollo. She, however, wanted nothing to do with Apollo, which is never good news for a mortal, and in revenge he punished her by decreeing that no one would ever believe her prophesies. The Trojans thought she was nuts when she warned them that the Greeks were hiding inside the horse, but, of course, history proved them wrong. For Way those telling us the ice is melting are our Cassandras.

Way has turned to solitary, scorned figures before, but she often had her dancers dance about the figure rather than embody the figure in specific gestures or patterns per se. Cassandra is different. She physicalizes the outsider through her relation to the group and theirs to her. She employs witchy, dreamy gestures the likes of which we’ve seen Krissy Kiefer perform as Hecate. And rhythmically and dynamically Cassandra remains in such taut counterpoint with the group that that relationship itself communicates sorrow and foreboding. Even if we had no idea who she was, we can feel that Cassandra is bound to the group with a magnetism founded on tragedy. It suggests Way may be moving to a depth in her narrative work to rival the formal richness of such dances and her Bach pieces.

Jack Perla wrote the music for "On A Train" that was also unfinished but will incorporate natural sound, political sound bytes along along more traditional lyrical components. Set and lighting designer Alex Nichols is designing a Bauschian environment of huge blocks of ice, suspended from the flies, that will slowly melt during the course of the performance and little by little flood the stage. Fellow critic Rita Felciano asked during the question period if it wasn’t dangerous for the dancers to have to perform their fierce movement on a slippery stage. Way said they were investigating material to lay over the floor that would help absorb the water—yes, it was a problem. But in a sense, Felciano touched the central point Way hopes to make—our environment is increasingly dangerous and if we don’t act to reverse the damage, if we don’t protect ourselves from the damage already done, we’ll all be very hurt indeed.

Volume 3, No. 4
January 24, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Ann Murphy


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last updated on January17, 2005