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David Dorfman Dance kicked off the second week of the 2006 American Dance Festival with the premiere of the company's new piece in Reynolds Theater on June 12. underground, which, according the press materials, explores the "principals [sic] of political activism," using the Chicago riots of 1968 as a starting point, was the least satisfactory performance I've ever seen at ADF.
It may be that my expectations were too high. Like Mr. Dorfman, I was a young teenager when the streets of Chicago erupted outside the Democratic National Convention in August of 1968. The televised images of those chaotic and bloody scenes, in my own country, alternating as they did with footage of Soviet tanks crushing Prague's Velvet Revolution and the machinations inside the Democratic Party, sparked my first understanding of power politics, the invisible line between democracy and totalitarianism, and the dilemmas and consequences of direct action. 1968 – from the Tet Offensive, to My Lai, through the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, to the actions of August and the subsequent election of Richard Nixon — made me the woman I am, politically speaking, and I guess I expected an artist of Dorfman's stature to create an artwork that really got at the tormented heart of the moral issues.
Instead I saw a slick and rather shallow multi-media production. Dorfman is not a pure dance man, liking "cross-disciplinary collaborations" with musicians, visual artists and video producers. underground includes spoken (and yelled) and sung words, anonymous voice-over, video projection of both images and text, very loud noise, and music, along with movement. It is about "making a difference," whatever that may mean when you get right down to it. It is about taking sides and asks (literally) "will you stand up?" Unfortunately, it is a little murky on what one might stand up for.
The movement is not particularly interesting, but there are some clever aspects to the piece. A cool voice asks important questions in survey form. The old news clips are projected to look like a wall of monitors in a newsroom. A reporter character embodies the fulcrum between the active and the apathetic. In the most powerful moments of the work, he acts like a giant pin holding a struggling butterfly as a woman in a paroxysm of rage and self-loathing tries to imagine any action that she could take to fight the good fight — and even what the good fight could be.
Sadly, though, the most appealing character on the stage is the one who declares that it is "cool to be apathetic." Much use is made of the raised fist, but somehow the gesture had been drained of power, and oddly, it was not balanced and challenged by the other ubiquitous gesture of social/antiwar activism, the peace sign. Although there was a great deal of talk about the morality of killing to save others, there was very little about the morality of dying that another might live. It requires two horns to make a dilemma.
The essential problem with this piece is that it depends on the talky-talk and the fast-moving news clips and graphics for its structure — it has an exoskeleton, rather than defining bones under the muscle. It looks like the movement has been cut and squeezed to fit that top layer, which is really just detail, and not exactly nuanced. The deep structure, where the power should lie, and from which the passion must come, is not well developed. You could get underground, mentally, such as there was to get, but if you can't feel it in your body, can you call it dance?