writers on dancing


Shift Gears

Dance Mission Theatre
August 8, 2003

reviewed by Ann Murphy

Political dance has certainly mutated. What once was raw, agit-prop explosion or sententious sermonizing has all but disappeared from the dance scene. Okay, for the most part, itís no loss, but why is it only the Dance Brigade brings us regular wild-woman interpretations of current social and economic events, along with forecasts about the future, which, by the way, keep coming true? Is it that nobody dares? Or is it that now people donít know how?

Maybe the problem is deeper: everyday politics have been transformed into hair-raising theater full of spectacular illusion and unsavory drama. Who can compete? Besides, in what fashion do you rail against the oppression of you and your ancestors when nearly everything in the political geosphere dwarfs those complaints? Genocide erupts as effortlessly as new epidemics leave the bush these days, while wars are as blithely scheduled as C-sections. Itís damn hard to make a ripple.

Perhaps thatís why, as earnestly as he tried, Manuelito Biag in Giving Strength to this Fragile Tongue which opened Friday at Dance Mission, was almost mute on the subject of oppression, rage, outsider status, and the often futile longing to be included, even though he dedicated the night to Pilipino poet Carlos Bulosan, who immigrated to California in the 1930ís and became a farm worker, and even though he wrote a moving introduction to the program about the fight against "exploitation and racial constructing".

Biagís last few lines of program notes may offer clues to the gulf between his political thought and yearning and the dancersí expression of those things: "Through these dances we carve our own self-determined space and make visible the essence and history contained in our bodies. Working with such themes as self-expression, the concept of home, longing and displacement, we use movement to navigate and give strength to our personal narratives, hopes and memoriesÖ."

He forgot to mention the fundamental social and group nature of politics: how, before one can turn the spotlight on oneself, one has to shine it on the group to which one belongs and hopes to elevate.

This isnít to say that political dance has to be The Red Detachment of Womenó those dances are political propaganda designed to bolster a ruling elite, whether red or white. What political art must be is incendiary. Without that, politics is mostly dreaming, and that, unfortunately, was the sometimes lovely, sometimes sweet state the program inhabited.

The dance that give the program its name, Giving Strength to this Fragile Tongue, a world premiere performed and crafted by Aimee Lam and Lorevic Rivera with Biag, was the single piece on the program that shook with political and social import, even though it was an intimate duet. Set to a sound collage by Jess Rowland of Gregorian chant, Buddhist chant, radio voices and an all-vocal Gamelan, the pair of dancers moved from provocative stasis to dangerous, spiraling stalking, then frontal confrontation. When they met, they ricocheted off one another with a longing and barely-checked violence that seemed channeled from larger, external forces.

For instance, Lam moved with a cooly seductive and dangerously aggression, took a pitcher and, as in a dare, drizzled water on the floor. Rivera, with sinewy strength, slithered into the puddle and slipped and rubbed himself until he absorbed the moisture with loving and debased desire. Later, the ritual was reinacted in telling inversion: he drizzled water on her arm and pushed it along her skin toward her shoulder as she sat in a chair with her legs on a table in an attitude of cool contempt that soon shattered.

Without a hint of polemic these two dancers easily conjured up, consciously or not, not only a generic battle between the sexes but the division between angry women (women are the ones who typically can find work in colonized societies in domestic service), and needy men (men are often rendered economically marginalized and dependent). In the manner of contemporary German dance, Giving Strength made us feel the poison of politics where it corrodes generations to comeóon the interpersonal level.

The rest of the evening never matched the physical succinctness or clarity of Tongue, despite heartfelt performances by the dancers. And what were the poems that inspired them? Although that might have helped anchor the dances, the real problem was much more fundamental; it was the vocabulary, phrasing and apparent themes the choreographer and dancers chose. What is in a transition? And why, in a work seeking to link the personal and political, should transition matter? What does it mean to fall? What about to get up? When you wave, what or who is coming or going and why do we care? What happens to the nature of touch or space or physical well-being in the world you are trying to capture?

What we saw in When We Believe Again (2003), Near Whisper and Travelogue were movements that have become the language of the small subculture which is the modern dance community in San Francisco: hand swiping the chest, Cunninghamesque arabesques devolving into loose turns, horizontal tucks and diagonal tilts into another body, tender wrestling duets, and lots of release work on the floor. The movementsí original link to meaning seems altogether lost now, and so what we see are the links to all the other dancers and dances that have a similar vocabulary. The same is true for costumes—here lots of slip dresses for the women and men in white shirts, ties and slacks—or props and texts—writing on surfaces, telling half-realized stories. Unless these emblems of other choreographers are used with white-hot intention, the incendiary is about as far away as fire in a flood.

And yet, there was a moment, almost accidenta,l of something that might light a fire if he were to develop it. In Biag's solo and premiere Near Whisper I caught a momentary flash of his jutting leg tossed out in a folk dancey, jiggish way, then stepping down and eliding into a hip-flicking shimmy. Folk dance giving way to social dance? Now that was interesting.

Photo:  Manuelito Biag.

copyright Ann Murphy 2003




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page last updated: July 19, 2003