As the war in Iraq drags on, more and more choreographers are creating dances of protest. Paul Taylor, who is usually reticent about explaining his dances, declared Banquet of Vultures an anti-war piece, and in Three Atmospheric Studies William Forsythe focused on a mother’s anguish to show how war devastates ordinary people. In March, ODC Artistic Director Brenda Way fired her own salvo with A Pleasant Looking Woman in Sensible Clothes, which made its world premiere on the first program of her company’s 36th annual season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Way’s new dance presents a world gone mad. From the opening scenes, the dancers’ movements are purposeful yet strange, and there’s an edge of obnoxiousness to everything they do. David Lang’s music reinforces this idea with an annoying twang in the strings, like a country song gone terribly wrong. The set includes video by Japanese artist Hiraki Sawa of ordinary domestic interiors, but they’re antiseptic and forbidding. Even a love duet between dancers Brandon “Private” Freeman and Andrea Flores, who are dressed garishly, looks sick and unwholesome. They seem like prototypical ugly Americans in all their unholy glory.
Way has said that she swore never to do a “chair” piece, but decided to break her own rule this time. Plastic chairs take on horrific significance in her dance as things go from weird to worse. At first, four suits emerge holding chairs upside down while mouthing something ugly. Later, a dancer is dragged out of a chair and thrown on the floor, and Freeman turns his chair into a prison for himself. Scenes of torture accelerate as the music becomes more discordant and Sawa’s video becomes more eerie. Tiny planes begin invading the sterile home, swooping near appliances and through doorways. They’re surreal and creepy, bringing to mind the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens and other invasions pursued by the Bush administration in violation of basic civil liberties and common sense. The lighting design by Alexander Nichols ramps up the tension, as the dancers’ shadows start to appear on the wall on which the video is projected, to make it clear they are being invaded themselves.
In the last scene, the dancers create a pyramid out of plastic chairs, which like the earlier torture scenes, reminded me of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib who were forced into human pyramids while naked. In the final moments, the dancers gather and stare at a plane that is rapidly approaching. On the floor, Flores draws in her breath sharply: Uh-oh. Who’s next to get hurt or killed? The “pleasant looking woman in sensible clothes” could be us.
Way has described her work as about “homeland insecurity,” but the images it presented are conflicting. They made me think both of the damage we’ve inflicted on Iraqis and the very different subject of the erosion of our own treasured civil liberties. That’s because the dancers seem to represent both the ugly Americans who torture others, as well as the ordinary Americans who are losing their rights. Inevitably perhaps, the torture scenes and pyramids reminded me of Abu Ghraib, the invasive planes of 9/11. Such a profusion of images is tricky because they make it difficult for a cohesive theme to emerge. Still, what’s compelling is the way the piece shows how the familiar can become twisted, and how a society can find itself wobbling on its most treasured core principles.
The evening also included two very different works, Way’s 1999 Investigating Grace, with guest artist Joanna Berman, formerly of the San Francisco Ballet, and the world premiere of co-associate director KT Nelson’s Scramble.
Investigating Grace explores the issues of infirmity and how individuals try to transcend the pain of the human condition, set to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Dressed in flowing white costumes, the dancers often seem like angels as they assist each other with life’s difficulties in this lovely work.
Scramble presents a lighter view. Nelson uses Bach’s Cello Suite No. 6 and a quartet of dancers–Elizabeth Farotte, a fine new addition to the company, Justin Flores, Daniel Santos and Anne Zivolich–who flow seamlessly in and out of relationships. First men dance with women, then women with women and men with men, an enjoyable homage to the diversity and fluidity of life’s relationships. It’s fun, fresh, and a pleasure to watch. Although some of the dancers are relatively new to ODC, the company looked strong and unified at its March 2 show.