“Would you overthrow your government? If not, why not?” Spoken quite matter-of-factly on the Yerba Buena Center stage, the question hangs in the air for a moment, as we all consider what it would mean.
In perhaps his most provocative work to date, David Dorfman turns a none-too-oblique gaze at contemporary apathy in underground, a multi-textured work that had its Bay Area premiere on September 21. His examination of activism and terrorism comes wrapped in a reminiscence of the “Days of Rage,” when the ’60s militant group, The Weathermen — a splinter of the leftist Students for a Democratic Society — waged a guerilla war against the U.S. government in protest of the Vietnam War. Bombings, riots — they even busted Timothy Leary out of jail and got him to Algeria — and yet, as revolutions go, the Weathermen’s efforts to shake Americans from complacency through violence brought home to our doorsteps largely fizzled.
Is the revolution over? Many of the Weathermen, now in their 60s, have long since turned themselves in and are now holding down middle class jobs. One of its leaders, Bill Ayers, is currently a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and it was one of those eerie coincidences of life that the New York Times happened to run an interview with Ayers about his memoir Fugitive Days on September 11, 2001. In it, Ayers quotes from the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney: “Human beings suffer,/ They torture one another./ They get hurt and get hard./History says, Don’t hope /On this side of the grave. /But then, once in a lifetime /The longed-for tidal wave /Of justice can rise up /And hope and history rhyme.”
Dorfman doesn’t cite Ayers specifically and yet, he is present, perhaps in the person of Dorfman himself, who was already onstage as the audience walked into the Center for the Arts. Against Cameron Anderson’s projection of a blood-hued brick wall, it’s hard not to see the lonely solo as the aging professor reviewing, perhaps longing for, the passion of his terrorist years. In loose-fitting street clothes, Dorfman curls, charges, backs away and hurls imaginary …epithets? Rocks? Grenades?
The loose, grounded style, the chaotic flinging perfectly suits both Dorfman’s talented troupe of dancers and the theme at hand. Everywhere you look there are bodies flying through space. He places motifs into a new context. An extended yoga pose (aptly enough, a variation on the Warrior pose), adds a raised fist, à la Black Power, or Che Guevara’s “Smash Capital Now.” Stark oblongs of light emerge on the stage like open graves, and the dancers fall into them willingly. A riot of projections — film clips and moving figures — flash onto the backdrop as the dance evolves.
Dorfman’s company has a talent for manifesting the essence of an idea physically. Jennifer Nugent’s assessment of her frustrations run from a raging screech that echoes in retching convulsions throughout her body, to a protracted whimper that sucks her into a contracted, balled up tantrum. It’s an instantly recognizable embodiment of the same responses that perhaps you or I might feel, say, while watching a presidential press conference.
In the midst of all this, Karl Rogers conducts an exercise, which, he and Dorfman later noted, was derived out of diversity trainings and seminars. Rogers asks a question and the dancers jeté forward or backwards presumably signifying a “yes” or a “no.” The questions can be benign, (“Do birds make you happy?” “Are you prone to forgiveness?”), or provocative (“Does what you do make a difference?” “Is your country worth killing for?” “Can we live without war?”). We are watching an informal poll of the personal leanings of each dancer, but these questions are a gauge, not for them but for us. In a later round of questions, tidal waves of dancers ebb and flow in visually arresting masses, before walking away wordlessly from the fight. Hope and history are apparently not rhyming nowadays.
Although underground is ultimately as much nostalgia as manifesto, Dorfman clearly feels a certain affinity for the passion of the Weathermen, and the ending of the piece leans toward the programmatic. Three of the dancers discover a “relic” — an activist (Joseph Poulson) frozen into inaction. The dancers chat amongst themselves — can they get him going again? Can they get him to DO something? They propel Paulson forward into stumbling action, and as one by one the group enlarges they all assist in getting Poulson moving again. It’s a piece of sentimentality that is at odds with the carefully crafted understatement of the rest of the piece.
I prefer to come back to Dorfman’s opening solos, the image of the lonely aging activist. Is he a relic of the past viewed through a rose-colored lens, or just a guy left behind when radicalism moved on? In a letter to the Times five days after the September 11 attacks, Ayers notes that his story “is now receiving attention in a radically changed context.” Five years on, it seems we’re still working out the parameters of that context.
Still, if the audience goes out of the theater asking themselves questions, Dorfman’s work is done. Does what you do make a difference? Jeté your response forward or backward.
underground was performed September 21-24, 2006 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.