I think I understand what Curt Haworth is trying to articulate in his new Descent. A statement in his press kit likens it to a “24-hour snapshot of a nation on the brink of war,” in other words how people en masse behave in stressful situations—especially ones they feel powerless to change (like a morally bankrupt regime). As accounts of the London blitz during World War II show, they go about their business as much as is possible—never forgetting that a siren may go off at any moment. They do their work, go to parties, sign petitions, make love.
Haworth doesn’t seem to be dealing with “the American People,” but with some very specific people: the dancers who contributed to the choreography and perform the work. Leslie Kraus, Heather McArdle, Rebecca Pearl, Peter Sciscioli, and Jason Akira Somma enter in ordinary clothes (by Joanna Seitz), laughing and chatting with one another in friendly undertones. They jive and noodle around in a relaxed way under Kathy Kaufman’s reddish glow of lights, to Andy Russ’s initial throbbing sounds. At the back loom three sculptures by David Fritz and Jon Allaire that look as if they’re made of small, rusted iron girders. All of a sudden, there’s a loud crash, and a flare of white light illumines the church, before all goes momentarily black. What was that??
The five seem unperturbed. The same dire sound repeats a little later. They keep on dancing soft patterns of slides and tumbles with whippy arms, fluid torsos, and loose, springy steps. Occasionally they open their arms and look skyward. After the third flash-crash, the movement and pace get a little more desperate; pairs dance tiredly; everyone dashes, skids, slides, falls. After the fifth assault, the tallest sculpture, hanging and strung together with ropes, suddenly crumples down.
What seems strange is that although extreme danger is present—more constantly threatening to daily life than the single immense cataclysm of 9-11—the dancers continue moving with a kind of puzzled tenderness and occasional outbursts (Pearl repeatedly jumps on Sciscioli, then leans so heavily back against him that she presses him to the floor).
Their movement identifies them as much as their opening babble. They employ an easy-going, athletic vocabulary that the choreographer says is “influenced from the contemporary downtown New York scene.” I can’t help thinking that a more specific attention on Haworth’s part to the correlation between “daily life” and looming danger might produce more specifically resonant movements and forms.
However, about halfway through the piece, the dancers embark on some startling and far more charged events. Everything immediately gets stronger and clearer. Two of these scenes rely on words. Sciscioli dons a military-type jacket and delivers an increasingly loud and bellicose speech made of strung-together fragments from every major piece of political oratory we’ve ever heard, or heard of: “Ask not what your country. . ..,” “. . .a day that will live in infamy,” “. . .fear itself,” “mission accomplished.” He draws some of the people like a magnet; their friends pull them back. Alone, McArdle screams her rage and impotence at us; every other word is “fuck” or “fucking.” She takes a baseball bat and smashes one of the sculptures to bits (turns out they’re made of styrofoam). After this terrifying performance, McArdle comes on to Kraus, and they begin a powerful, angrily erotic duet, as if the day’s events had thrown them together. The music is pretty but their shoves, grappling, and choke holds are more prominent than kisses. Then they tidy themselves up and go. When the last crash comes, the room is empty.
To remind us who these people are, Haworth does a pomo thing. The dancers stroll back on, talking quietly and cheerfully about what they’ve just performed and how they did it tonight. They start repeating their opening material. The last crash is equivocal; three have wandered out, two remain, bending and swaying.
Descent is uneven in terms of its overall shape and thrust, but it’s brave. And, at its best, bristling with human warmth and indignation.