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Dance as Social Work




at the Dance Center of Columbia College, November 19 and 20

In the last few years, the foundations and government agencies that fund dance have taken a common approach to selecting projects. Their guidelines call for "community-based work" in which a choreographer creates dances with and for cultural subgroups. But however admirable the funders' goals, the results have been difficult for dancers. One choreographer says, "To put it in the bluntest words possible, the funders want dancers to do social work. It's the only way to get funded."

One of the first to do community-based work was Liz Lerman, based in Washington, D.C. Several years ago, before the current funding craze started, she wanted to make a dance about her mother and decided to have people who were her mother's age in it. She found that many senior citizens can move gracefully and are terrific performers, and since then has created many works that combine young dancers with seniors.

A recent performance and residency by the Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange is typical of the kind of package put together to get foundation funding. Four members of the company, not including Lerman, were in residence for a week at the Dance Center of Columbia College, running a workshop for local senior citizens and local dancers. Kimberli Boyd, the company's associate artistic director, asked the 26 participants to create stories and movement about "the American dream," then made a dance from their material.

The untitled dance created in the workshop, also shown at the Dance Center, was quite short. In it the stage is filled with people moving and talking: the old people walk across it telling whether the American dream worked for them; the young people say that the dream is unrealistic. The old people leave and the young people dance until they're exhausted, explaining again and again why the dream is unrealistic. The old people reenter from the rear, slowly walking in single file while making hand and arm gestures, and eventually take over the stage from the exhausted younger dancers. The argument between young and old is finally resolved by a young woman who says, "My parents told me to have the ability to dream and the responsibility to carry it through."

As dance, the piece is simpleminded--the old people don't really dance, they simply walk. The young dancers have all the interesting movement. The structure is simple--the old talk, the young talk, then an answer arrives--and overall the choreography is dull. But the piece does offer an interesting dialogue between young and old.

The company's other dances are also interesting as social commentary but dull as dance. In excerpts from a work in progress called Safe House: Still Looking performers tell stories about moments of humiliation--Boyd, who's black, talks about a gynecological exam, only her second, when a white male doctor allowed several white male interns to watch without asking Boyd's permission. Bea Wattenberg, an older Jewish woman, tells about being in a cab in Harlem while the driver's rap music repeats the line "Kill the Jew-devil" over and over. But Wattenberg and Andy Torres--an older man who was once a professional tap and jazz dancer and who's still a wonderful mover--don't really dance expressively. They're both used as symbols--older black man, older Jewish woman--not as individuals, and the dance ends up patronizing them. The choreography is nothing special, except for a well-crafted opening section--two duets, each with one old and one young performer, progress across the stage as partners alternately obstruct and support each other.

The mix of elements in Lerman's dances--vivid social topics, a little accomplished choreography sprinkled through mostly mundane choreography, performers carefully balanced between young and old, white and black, male and female--adds up only when you realize that Lerman's purpose must not be to create good or beautiful dances but to hold up a mirror to a chosen community. The workshop literally gave a voice to the senior citizens involved, who were allowed to tell the stories of their lives, and allowed the young dancers to respond to them honestly. But the workshop is really social work, not art, and it benefits the participants, not necessarily the audience.

The performance on November 20 made Lerman's emphasis on social work even clearer. Boyd decided to turn the performance itself into a workshop: she led the audience through a simple warm-up, created a simple eight-movement dance, did a few variations on the movement, and persuaded some audience members to come out onto the stage to improvise. Although Boyd's stated purpose was to show the process followed in the workshop, it seemed to me that the actual purpose was both to pad the show and give the audience the "feel good" experience of a dance class. Again, social work won out over art.

While the relative merits of social work and art can be argued, the influence of money is unmistakable. Dance funders have clearly asked for "community-based work," and Lerman seems to have gone for the money. While her early artistic choices--putting old and young people together onstage--were by all reports authentic, the concert presented here seems to have been commercially motivated.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a dance presented on this program by Mordine and Company Dance Theatre, Truth Spin. Shirley Mordine has kept her company going for 25 years without depending on much support from foundations, and she has continued to explore her own artistic vision. Truth Spin is a significant development in her artistry, integrating postmodern movement and ideas.

When Truth Spin was first presented last spring, it had a strident political text, delivered by the dancers, about the shameless way politicians in the last presidential election used spin doctors to change the public's perceptions. In this reworked version, Mordine has stripped away the painfully pretentious text, and no longer uses the slides that were projected onto the dancers' white unitards. What's left is Mordine's movement and Shawn Decker's music.

Mordine has absorbed a great deal from Trisha Brown, a postmodern choreographer who uses a sudden release to gravity to make movement. The choreography in Truth Spin is full of such released movement: spinning; quick, unusual lifts; space-swallowing progressions across the floor made up of tiny jumps and leaps. It's exhilarating movement, expansive and optimistic, and much different from the kind of introspective modern movement that focuses on shapes of the spine and torso. But the choreographic craft--how the movements are combined--seems less assured in this version than in the first version.

Decker's music is based on an idea also borrowed from Trisha Brown: the dancers' movement triggers elements of the music. When a dancer breaks the beam of an electric eye, a computer decides randomly whether or not to start a short section of synthesized music stored in its memory. Brown did not explore the idea, but Mordine and Decker highlight the idea and make it work. The piece starts with a single dancer walking across four light beams, triggering each one in turn, cluing the audience in to the trick. The rest of the dance makes playful use of the triggering.

While Decker's score is fairly standard electronic music, the dance and music combination offers an interesting response to a question raised in the early 1960s by Yvonne Rainer in her dance Trio A. By performing the same solo to several pieces of music, she showed that the music completely changes an audience's perception of the dance; Rainer's point was that music often communicates more powerfully than movement. By creating an environment where movement triggers music, and where the music is different in every performance, Decker and Mordine enable the dancers to react spontaneously to the music, putting music and dance on a more equal footing.

The contrast between Lerman's and Mordine's work is striking. Mordine works on the leading edge of dance, collaborating with other artists and using esoteric theories of new kinds of movement. Lerman works on the trailing edge of dance, at the place where it affects the largest number of people; her broad appeal is of necessity shallow, reflecting only the most common concerns. It's difficult to choose between them, though government agencies and foundations must do so every day. And if they continue to ask for dances that provide community groups with flattering self-portraits, choreographers will provide them, keeping as much artistic integrity as they feel they can afford. But it's not a good situation--the most successful choreographers will not be the most gifted, but those with a gift for flattery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Frederking.

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