Dance Review: Dance Against Atrocity

Audacious as it sounds, a new dance work by an innovative choreographer explores how human beings have expanded our ability to articulate the nature of crimes against humanity.

“Small Dances about Big Ideas” by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Company.

By Debra Cash

It was counterintuitive, to say the least, when Professor Martha Minow asked Washington D.C.-based choreographer Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange to create a new dance as part of this past November’s Harvard Law School conference, “Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights, and Education,” marking the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials.

Art about the Holocaust is nothing new. The atrocity has spawned an ongoing art industry that there is no sign will end any time soon. Writer Melvin Jules Bukiet, himself a child of Auschwitz survivors, calls such work “a historic Rorschach blot” noting “if you’re depressive, you can justify despair. If you’re hopeful, you can find redemption. If you’re stupid, you can discern triumph of the spirit.”

But in their initial discussions, Lerman and Minow decided that the dance should go beyond the stories of victims and survivors. While it would use real documentation — the voice of Nuremberg judge Robert Jackson, texts about obnoxious and ultimately correct activist Raphael Lemkin, and interviews collected through the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, it wouldn’t be centrally concerned with portraying the experiences of victims, survivors or perpetrators.

Instead, Dance Exchange’s new work would explore how human beings have expanded our ability to articulate the nature of crimes against humanity. It would address intertribal killing in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, rape as a newly-recognized war crime, and the nature of admissible evidence to “stay the hand of vengeance.” In short, it would take on the expanding litany of crimes that continue to be committed despite the increasingly hollow-sounding slogan “Never Again.”

A dance about the law? Surely, nothing could be more ill-suited to choreographic expression.

I didn’t think she could do it. And I was wrong.

“Small Dances about Big Ideas,” the hour-long work that emerged from Minow’s audacious assignment, has a self-deprecating title that only makes sense in terms of the looming enormity of its topic. Lerman’s dances have always been about ideas and the juxtaposition of ideas. She won her 2002 MacArthur “Genius” grant as much for her commitment to broad civic participation in art-making — that is, for her contributions to community organizing — as for the theatrical merit of her oeuvre. Over the years, those works have been uneven; the focus on process has made many of the dances seem unbaked or trite, even as they thrilled the people who came together to perform them.

Dance Exchange develops its raw choreographic material by aligning words and images with gestural references that are distilled, modified, accented and edited down. The effect is abstract but the gestures continue to read as palimpsest so that audiences “feel” more literal meanings flowing underneath the abstractions. In “Small Dances,” Lerman’s work has never spoken quite as audibly. Made in 20 days of rehearsal with only her intergenerational professional company and a few skilled guest dancers in the mix, “Small Dances” manages to create a kaleidoscope where each story retains its particularity.

In its world premiere (the work will be repeated later this season and then revised and revived for the company’s 2006 30th anniversary season) the dance is structured like a play advancing through a number of vignettes. Bodies falling dead under searchlights as planes drone overhead. An apprehensive judge (Ted Johnson) edging his desk as if afraid it will burn his robes.

A young forensic anthropologist (Cassie Meador dancing to excerpts of a memoir written by Clea Koff) jitters and falls as she plants flags on a mass grave. She cradles a Rwandan victim (Johannesburg native Lesole Maine) in her arms like a late 20 th century Madonna, and then lies next to him, her slumped shape blurring the distinction between victim and those who document victimization. Elizabeth Johnson enacts rape from the perspective of both rapist and victim, leaping onto the judge’s tabletop and sliding across its polished surface like a bead on an abacus. Maine, in a ferocious solo, seems manacled first by invisible cuffs and then held back from his rage by another man’s loving embrace. The dancers toss reams of testimony, documentation, and scientific evidence on the floor, where it becomes flotsam.

These compelling images do their shocking work. But what is more interesting is how Lerman’s troupe deliberately muddies the waters. The hard, burning core of “Small Dances” is a question about how bystanders made violence — near at hand or happening on the other side of the world — possible or at least, invisible and possible to ignore. Peter di Muro, Dance Exchange’s artistic director, stops the action halfway through the dance, with the dancers ranged politely behind him. You wonder, for a minute, if the dance is over and if one of those earnest question and answer sessions is about to begin. It isn’t.

He asks a member of the audience what the dance so far has brought to mind. The night of the first public performance, a woman in the audience recalled being glued to the television during the original Nuremberg trials. Di Muro repeats her comment, as if to simply to make up for her lack of a microphone. But then he turns her words into a series of hand gestures: hands at right angles around his face as if to show the television. Fists clenched to show being “glued” followed by long sweeps of the arms backwards to gather up information. And then he asks the audience to repeat the gestures while sitting in our seats. Then he calls for us to repeat it and look at each other.

It’s a beautiful little sequence, easy to learn, easy to see. The woman’s memory becomes enlarged, shared, vivid, real. Despite resistance, the entire audience is leaving the world of mental models for embodied ones. We have gone from being an audience for the dance to being part of its action. With Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein’s trials underway, the first Rwandan war crimes trial indictments, and American abuses in Iraq and Gitmo coming to light, we are getting a taste of what it feels like to not settle for remaining mere bystanders.

“Small Dances About Big Ideas” will be presented at the Alys Stephens Center at the University of Alabama-Birmingham on November 18-19, 2005. In November 2006, it will be performed at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland-College Park.

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