By Leslie Holleran
Matthew Henley in “D-Man in
the Waters”(Steve Korn photo)
At this past weekend’s performance by the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company (CDC), called “The Shape of Dissent,” I felt as if I had dropped in on two very different periods in twentieth-century American modern dance. The first half of the program focused on the mid ’30s to late ’40s—the era of the Great Depression, WWII, and modern dance icons, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. The program’s second half jumped dramatically to the ’90s. America was now battling a war on home territory against a killer disease, called AIDS, which disproportionately affected gay men and other “high-risk” populations. On the modern dance scene, post-modernism was firmly entrenched.
Although the works included in “The Shape of Dissent” came from different periods, CDC Artistic Director, Hannah Wiley, recognized a common thread among them. Each commented in different ways on pressing social issues of the time. In speaking with Wiley following the conclusion of the weekend, she said, “I surprised myself at how the early work and the more recent work were so compatible and so competitive in their power.” She also mentioned that the audience could see this as well. She said, “I could hear the audience audibly react to the works.” I myself was on the verge of tears during the last piece of the evening, perhaps remembering my own losses.
The suite of six relatively short works by male and female artists that comprised the first part of the program were (in order of appearance): Charles Weidman’s “Lynchtown” (1936); Joseph Gifford’s “The Pursued” (1947); Eve Gentry’s “Tenant of the Street” (1938); Donald McKayle’s “Dink’s Blues” from the larger work “Rainbow Round My Shoulder” (1959); Daniel Nagrin’s “Strange Hero” (1948); and Jane Dudley’s “Harmonica Breakdown.” The issues these works confronted were racism, war, and homelessness, among others.
On the other hand, Bill T. Jones’ “D-Man in the Waters” (1989) was created in response to a new social problem, AIDS. His own partner, Arnie Zane, with whom he founded the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, had died of the disease the previous year and another company member, Damien Acquavella, was battling it during the making of the piece. “D-Man…” is a tribute to the strength with which Acquavella fought back. In his autobiography, “Last Night on Earth,” Jones writes, “He [Damien] fought back with every possible homeopathic and nontraditional healing method—sometimes two and three at a time. Still, the KS lesions spread and his remarkable musculature melted.”
In this ensemble work for nine dancers, including both men and women, the dancing is both playful and fearless. We can imagine that the dancers are indeed moving through water. Jones has them criss-crossing their arms in front of their chests while forming lines around the stage. They are like a flock of water fowl in their insistence on staying together. Later the dancers become more daring: they are not just “swimming,” but are now also diving to the floor. A shockingly difficult move, performed by two different trios, includes a male dancer leaping sideways into two female dancers’ arms.
Jones differs from the earlier choreographers in his technically difficult movement and the very uplifting manner in which he approaches a tragic subject. But, like them, he too knows dance can be more than just beautiful. It can also be powerful.