The American Dance Festival's first program this week is one of ideological extremes on either side of a tricky fulcrum. Ending the evening is Maguy Marin's bleak and lengthy 2004 work, the Beckettian Umwelt, in which the performers go round and round, in view and out, through a divided wall of reflective flaps upstage and along a narrow corridor buffeted with winds roaring like jet engines. The piece seems to be about mind-numbing routine, boredom, malaise, isolation… degradation, brutality, war …and torture — of the audience, by means of assaultive sound and stabbing searchlights. (There is nothing like their biting the hands that feed them to express the depravity of a certain portion of the intellectual class.) As far as I could see, it was utterly without humor, or indeed, any emotion, and in that way, as well as structurally, it is very much like 2003’s presentation, You Can't Eat Applause. In this case, as in 2003, a great many of the audience walked out. Even more stopped their ears against the painful noise. I stayed only because I had my earplugs.
Certainly reality is not all pretty, and dance need not be pretty at all — but surely art should reach toward a subtle and comprehensive understanding, and shy away from polemics. Whenever I’m faced with art like this, that puts forward a view of life as dreary, meaningless routine, I’m always a little stunned by the narrow thinking behind it. Where, in this view, is the surge of joy when one opens one’s eyes to the light each morning? Where is the regular happiness of making a cup of coffee for your lover every day? Where is the benediction of the seasons in their endless repetition?
It seems to me that those who think life is tedious have brought that condition on themselves. And the problem with tedium as a subject is that the resulting art is so often tedious itself. The same may be said of work devoted to inward rapture. Khadija Marcia Radin opened the program with her Rapture, a minimally choreographed whirling dance in the Sufi manner. It was lovely, in its simple way, but not mesmerizing, or capable of producing spiritual change in the viewers in a concert setting.
The program’s center was a work of surpassing strangeness by Turkish choreographer Aydin Teker (in conjunction with several of her dancers). aKabi was as compelling as Umwelt was repelling, and paradoxically, as inexplicable as the Marin work was obvious. However, aKabi’s power depended less on its movements or manipulations of space, than on the bizarre and enormous shoes worn by the dancers. Made by Istanbul master shoemaker Ahmet Inceel, their uppers were fine black kidskin, but their soles were fantastically thick, resulting in perilous platforms as tall as the distance between ankle and knee. One was in a swivet of apprehension throughout, lest the dancers should fall — a feeling enhanced by the deliberate turning of ankles and twisting of knees. Torquing and contorting, rolling, twisting; waving and flapping their strange extensions; rising, balancing and falling — these five dancers produced the evening’s indelible images.