Photo by Lois GreenfieldART TRANSFERS POWER. DANCERS HAVE ALWAYS known this. It's what they were doing in the village circles and the royal courts: sharing and spreading power. But in the late 20th century, a critic doesn't necessarily expect to be motivated by art to take an active role in societal discourse. I was thinking about this because two days after the Columbine High incident, a 12-year-old friend of mine got beat up trying to stop some school-yard boys from “shooting” a girl with fake guns. Kids aren't born bullies, I thought, they are made into them; so how can we un-make them? Then a month of astonishing dance and theater performances showed me a way.
It began with the incomparable Dan Froot and David Dorfman at Highways. I wish every kid could see the three-part show created and performed by Dorfman and Froot that they've been fine-tuning for nine years. Committed and demanding, nerve-wracking and funny, Live Sax Acts is about friendship, boundaries, conflict, violence, resolution and, ultimately, love. As in life, truces are hard-won and delivered with intense energy. Wearing kilts and no shirts, Dorfman and Froot both played saxophone, sweat pouring from their bodies. Dorfman is the larger and more menacing of the two, but the size issue didn't prevent the diminutive Froot from hefting Dorfman into his arms in the opening section, Horn.
They were odd and vulnerable musicians, establishing rhythms and often blasting loud snorts of sound into each other's ears, playing cat-and-mouse in a disturbing, physical dance that ended with Dorfman on the floor, panting as if he'd completed a triathlon. What a way to start a show — how could they build to more? But they did: barefoot and in tuxes, they launched into the second section, Bull.
“That's nice,” said Froot as he received a slap in the face and delivered a harder slap back.
“Oh, that one was good,” responded Dorfman, striking back still harder.
Froot — who must be a long-lost cousin of Stan Laurel, because he's such a sweet, shy rascal with smarts — removed his jacket. “I'm feeling a little angry,” he said in a pleasant tone. The fighting escalated. An underlying homoeroticism ran through the piece, and you could clearly see that degrees of aggression are what distinguish love from hate, and that there is a choice.
THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME I'D EVER REALLY believed art had the potential to change people. So I followed up my conversion with a journey to some public schools to witness exactly what students by the thousands in Los Angeles experience of the arts. First stop: Nerd-Landia, a dynamic and inspiring original opera created by the Los Angeles Opera Community Programs, which spent nine weeks at each of 13 different L.A. County public schools ending last month. Los Angeles kids singing opera with every fiber of their soul was a revelation, a transformative experience. I also saw the Mark Taper Forum's vividly imaginative musical A Village Fable, which traveled grassroots style to 36 schools. And I met with the Luckman Fine Arts Complex program directors who are committed to helping kids generate their own performances, write their own scripts and choreograph their own dances.
These programs and workshops seem to work. A recent study at UCLA found that students who participate in drama and theater are better able to get along with people of different economic status and race. They are more tolerant and empathetic. When asked if it was okay to make a racist remark, about 40 percent more of the 10th-graders who had no theater experiences said yes, as compared to those who had been highly involved in theater.
In light of these findings, I couldn't look at the rest of the dance I saw last month as a traditional critic. Victoria Marks, Loretta Livingston, Jeff Slayton, Viola Farber, Oguri and Liz Lerman have been holding up the mirror for a long time, so we can look our humanity square in the eye. Marks gave the premiere of Father/Daughter Dances at Highways in mid-May with real fathers and daughters (who were not necessarily dancers) performing extremely intimate, primitive duets — primitive in the sense that they felt elemental, instinctual, a return to the cave. Marks is incredible for her unswerving ability to key into the very thing that defines a father and daughter relationship, and asks, “What is taboo?” With collaborator Margaret Williams, she is also a dance filmmaker of the highest order, and their 1997 film, Men, was given a showing at Highways, too.
JEFF SLAYTON PRODUCED HIS FAREWELL program as a dance professor at Cal State Long Beach on May 22, at the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater. Formerly married to the late Viola Farber, Slayton pulled out the stops for a heart-wrenching tribute to her by inviting guests Douglas Nielsen and Loretta Livingston to contribute. Nielsen's frightening solo by Farber, Last Call, made the theater's black walls seem to collapse on top of him. Livingston's Solo Traveler/Viajera Sola, loosely based on her life as a fifth-generation Californian, was exquisitely performed. The positive uplift and the generosity of the evening were phenomenal.
Artist Oguri opened a new, airy, dance space, Electric Lodge in Venice, with Earthbeat, a collaboration with composer-percussionist Adam Rudolph. It was wonderful to see Oguri have fun. The African rhythms percolated inside him, and relaxed the logic and power of his customary restraint. His example suggested the benefits of releasing pure energy.
The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange performed Lerman's site-specific Moving to Hallelujah in every nook and cranny of the Skirball Cultural Center. Working with students from CalArts and with people who might be called elderly by some, Lerman is the quintessence of the all-embracing choreographer. The piece fixed on the history of the Jews, prompted by a triptych painting by Larry Rivers. Dancers of nearly every race climbed up a replica of a 4th-century B.C. synagogue, digging their fingers into the cracks in the large stone walls. They waded through water, perched on banisters, rolled across courtyards and told stories. The work was beautifully paced and educational, impossible to leave without feeling some resonance with the Jewish people.
One could do worse than to turn to these artists for solutions to the problem of how to build peace in this violent, fractured society. Each piece put us in someone else's shoes, promoting understanding and transferring emotions. They have the power to change things — if not the world, then maybe a bully.