In the 1930s, dances with political heft proliferated on New York stages. They might be stylishly abstract, like Martha Graham’s Chronicle, or more heavy-handed. As dancer Jane Dudley once recalled, the most earnest pieces could be summed up like this: Two skinny women stand for the hungry masses and a stouter one for the fascist threat). These days, if the disquieting times rouse choreographers’ social consciousness, they have the arsenal of postmodernism at their disposal. They can layer videos, speech, and movement. Techniques of collage and juxtaposition can bring unlike elements into resonant union.
Both Alex Escalante’s Clandestino and Victoria Marks’s Not About Iraq a few weeks ago transformed Saint Mark’s into an arena for questioning national policies, but in dissimilar ways. Escalante, born in California to Mexican immigrants, begins his piece grimly. We enter the church, blinded by a light trained on us; our programs are stamped; the cell-phones-off speech comes as a command. Yet four white fabric walls turn the space into a dance hall, with chairs ranged around its four sides. Escalante juggles two ironically conjoined issues: the growing harshness of U.S. immigration policies and the nostalgia of many transplanted Mexicans—whether here legally or illegally—for their homeland. p>
One early scene in Clandestino, is, to me, the most interesting and, in some way, the most pungent, even though it attacks the work’s themes obliquely. Tightly pressed together, Renée Archibald, Pedro Osorio, and Escalante turn within their clump, traveling around the room with tiny rhythmic steps (part bounce, part shuffle), gazing about warily. They keep stepping even when Sandy Tillett tries to force her way into the group, and continue when she, finally absorbed, herds them where she wants to go. The image speaks of clannishness, of fear, of difficult journeys, and it connects on a movement level with some later rowdy, quick-stepping dancing in couples.
Escalante filters the points he wants to make through personal channels, with entertaining, thought-provoking, but sometimes awkward results. When the mood within the clump lightens, the dancers interview one another about their parentage as they travel the perimeter of the room. They press the mic they’ve been toting on members of the audience and ask about their backgrounds, their views on immigration, and whether they like Mexican food. (This sequence doesn’t quite come off, partly because those queried invariably talk too softly.)
Over the course of the work, Escalante introduces us to his family and his childhood via slides and gabbled narration. He translates a man-went-into-a-bar joke told by a jovial on-screen Mexican man. It involves an incorrect interpretation of an order in a bar whose customers are deaf-mutes and—when the dancers pick up the gestures—is meant to remind us of cross-cultural mistranslations. We see videos of nervous men near the border in Tijuana, and at one point the dancers crawl for a long time on their bellies while Joe Levasseur darkens the lighting. Onscreen on each wall, Escalante’s parents respond to questions he delivers live. Yes, they have green cards and a better life here in the U.S., but they visit Mexico every summer, and when they leave to come “home” to California, everyone cries. The three red-shirted musicians who call themselves Los Immigrates del Sur chug around the space, playing guitars and accordion and singing the plaint of an illegal immigrant. His assimilated children have become strangers to him; he lives in a “golden cage,” but a cage is a cage.
Despite the power of the subject, Escalante’s tone is more one of nostalgia for compromised traditions and regret for the sadness that underlies the lives of the uprooted than one of anger over immigration policies. When snuggled-up couples dance—feet flying, hips swinging—we see the joy of Saturday-night get-togethers. Recorded dance tunes and melting songs in Spanish bring the spectators into the dance. All we need is a few bottles of Dos Equis to forget the pain for a while.
Victoria Marks’s more polished piece also makes us laugh at times, but her pinpricks of levity have a way of becoming knives. The stunning Not About Iraq owes its title to Neil Greenberg’s memorable Not About AIDS Dance, although Marks hews slightly closer to the subject she’s supposedly not dealing with than Greenberg did. Moves that fleetingly conjure up the humiliating postures in photos of Abu Ghraib, or what could be interrogations, suddenly appear amid the dancing, as do ones that suggest soldiers under fire and civilians clinging together. As a kind of interlocutor, Marks adopts the sunny tone and willed ignorance of the U.S. government, forcing us—not always subtly—to contrast what’s going on with the official views we’re fed.
When Taisha Paggett enters, calls out “lights up,” and begins to perform slow, generous movements, Marks speaks up from a seat in the audience. “This is beautiful!” she says, smiling at us. “Isn’t this beautiful?!” She’s right. Paggett, a tall, slender African-American woman is indeed gorgeous. She maintains her serene control, while distant voices mutter in Ross Levinson’s sound design, and Marks, on her feet now, becomes more insistent about what beauty is and what truth is. She also says, “This is about power,” and her pleased explanations begin to seem more and more disturbing in relation to Paggett, irrevocably hitting home when the dancer falls and lies panting fiercely and Marks tells us “Everything is O.K.”
Paggett herself talks, varying demonstrations of semi-neutral descriptions like “This is looking away” with more violent ones like “This is standing on all fours naked.” She’s joined by women in plain black dresses (Noellie Bordelet, Maria Gillespie, and Phithsamay Linthahane, plus—for this sequence only—Alejandra Martorell and Nami Yamamoto). The women primp and grin (Who are they? The great unaware?) and Paggett joins them, but they also freeze in attitudes of anguish, howling silently, and wilt to the floor. Marks has stirred a lot together in this artistic blender; Yamamoto swaggers, briefly, like an arrogant officer while elsewhere people “die” over and over, and Marks, still cheerful steps, unseeing over fallen bodies.
Marks, in her intermittent, nondancing appearances, stands in part for the administration’s public stance on Iraq, while Paggett seems to be the one who tells it like it is. She also controls the production, calling for lights to go out or come on, and when Marks gets carried away in a slightly puzzling demonstration of what a two-fingered “v” gesture can mean and has embarked on a digital dance number, Paggett says, “Cut!”
The choreography is ferocious. The powerful and expressive Bordelet, Gillespie, and Linthahane wrench their bodies through arduous movement. The events of a day—or a week or a month—slide into view as if running past us on a tape. We see entrapment, collapse, comfort, support, flight, and combat as part of a long, exhausting dance, pinned in the spotlights and shadows of Carol McDowell’s lighting. In the end, Paggett stands alone before us, matching and mismatching cryptic words and moves: “This is a prayer” (grin, wipe it away). “This is a joke. This is a prayer.” “You know what this is.” And she backs away into darkness.