Perspectives on Dance God in the Details, Humanism in Postmodern Dance

Apollinaire Scherr

Perspectives on Dance
God in the Details, Humanism in Postmodern Dance

Each week, I interview a couple of choreographers about their upcoming shows. I am used to them saying that their dances are about “gender,” “the body,” “violence” – issues, in other words. But suddenly this year, they began to describe the pieces (with a specificity that in itself was worth celebrating) as dramas – the kind of common dramas that, for example, street photographers and poets catch.
With September 11, the ordinary revealed itself as extraordinary. As with most occasions of great loss, we came to cherish God in the details – the image of a Ground Zero store window displaying the usual neatly folded pin-striped shirts, though now washed in a memorializing ash; shoes hanging from a bare-limbed tree; the dishevelment and shock particular to each person in the crowds escaping the inferno and hobbling homeward; the upward rush of shirt and tie as a man fell from the sky.
Currents in an artform build slowly – over years, not weeks or months. But the tragedy of 9/11 gave a legitimizing reference point to the intimate theater that a generation of downtown choreographers, now mainly in their thirties and forties, had been developing for the last fifteen years. “Humanism” is a dread word in dance precisely because dance is always human (what else could dancers be?); calling it as much tends to signal a schlocky desire to “celebrate humanity.” But 9/11 buttressed the assumption, from which these choreographers have consistently operated, that humanism has as many faces as there are people, and schlock is only one of them. Finally, the dance-makers’ talk could catch up with their work.
Such postmodern choreographers (and NYFA fellows) as Ronald K. Brown, David Dorfman, Yasmeen Godder, Neil Greenberg, Keely Garfield, John Jasperse, Tere O’Connor, Roseanne Spradlin, and Donna Uchizono present their dancers as individuals – more than elements in a visual design – who reveal themselves through a fine-grained, idiosyncratic idiom. The drama in the dance evolves from the dancers’ use of this vernacular as they find their way with one another.
In Ron Brown’s “Walking out the Dark” (2002), for his Brooklyn-based company, Evidence, four dancers, paired off into couples, stand along the perimeter of a circle of light, facing inward. They dance at one another, because they have grievances. A woman approaches her partner with steady, menacing steps and raises her arm – she’s only preparing to turn, but for an instant you think she’s going to strike him. A man flutters his hips up and down the torso of another woman and, when that doesn’t move her, collapses onto his back with arms overhead in an exclamation of surrender. As the piece progresses, though, people begin to dance together – giving and taking, as in conversation.
In his program notes, Brown has written, “I built the work as a danced conversation [that considers] what contributes to the inability to reach a brother or sister in need” — a nice gloss on the work, but, without it, you’re not handicapped. Like a lyric poem or an exchange overheard on the bus, “Walking out the Dark” establishes its context as it goes. All we need to know to get swept up in the drama is there among its players.
The choreographers of this kind of intimate theater are heirs to the task-based, anti-theatrical work of the sixties and seventies. But for them, “task” means not only movement scores but also daydreaming, despairing, bickering – the task, in other words, of our feelings, especially for one another. In John Jasperse’s Waving to you from here (1997), these two kind of tasks –movement and feeling – converge.
Like such edgy contemporary novels of suburban life as Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm and A.M. Homes’ Music for Torching, Waving to you from here describes a terrain in which anomie is as basic as breathing, diminishment is a constant threat, and unavoidable intimacy with the people one would rather avoid dogs everyone. Jasperse lays out this landscape by pursuing simple tasks with such relentlessness that they end up carrying enormous emotional weight.
We hear suburban sounds – the shudder of dropped ping-pong balls, jets roaring close by, creaking doors, barking dogs, crying babies. Meanwhile, the four dancers arrange and re-arrange stacks of dog-eared paperbacks, each other’s limbs (and cheeks and ears and heads, all handled roughly), and their individual places on the broad staircase at center stage, from which they stare out impassively, as if from repressed family snapshots. The dancers even adjust their height – when, halfway through the piece, a metal ceiling begins to descend mechanically to the floor, eventually pinning them beneath it.
God in the Details — continued
Modern dance’s current interest in stories – or the whiff of story that a work like “Waving to you from here” gives off – has two precedents: Martha Graham’s recasting of classical myths and the let-me-tell-you-about-me (and-all-my-hyphenated-particulars) shows that started up in the eighties. Graham aimed for universals; dances that do so today, now that context is everything, tend to feel simultaneously grandiose and vague. And the-personal-is-political stories often smack of special pleading, story for the sake of argument.
Choreographers like Jasperse and Brown (and O’Conner, Uchizono, Greenberg, etc., etc., etc.) have recognized another option: dramatic dance that is neither confessional nor universal but marked by a humane objectivity. Here, large implications arise – with great moral clarity and surprise – from specific occasion and place.
The occasion of Yasmeen Godder’s “i feel funny today”(2002) is nothing special: a dowdy woman sits and knits outside the stage’s red borderline and dreams up the man and woman who are dancing a rough, frightened duet at its center. But the dance is haunting because the imaginary lovers seem to know about the woman who has invented them. In fact, it is she they are afraid of. Godder, raised in Israel, blurs the line between dreamer and dreamed, subject and object, outcast and member of the tribe – distinctions, she implies, that may be as much a mind game as the knitter’s daydream itself.
Best of all, this intimate theater regularly treats us to a language of precision and metaphor. The punctuated rhythms of signifying limbs in Brown’s work, the obsessive patterns that wash across the bodies of Jasperse’s dancers, Godder’s constructivist lines suddenly turning soft and blurry: the dances are nothing without their dancing, which is, of course, as it should be.

Apollinaire Scherr is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and has written on dance, art, and books for The New York Times, The Village Voice, Elle, and numerous other publications.