Dancing About Politics; Bodies in motion can rebalance the body politic.
by Bruce Schimmel, for City Paper
Before starting City Paper some 30 years ago, I was a dance critic. At a dance concert recently, I was reminded how fervently I believed that heartfelt art could detoxify politics. I still do.
I’ve recently joined the board of Philadelphia Dance Projects, whose series this year, called “[re]generation,” is a look back at this vital time. Executive Director Terry Fox is reviving works done around the early 1980s, asking the original choreographers to teach them to a new generation.
Personal dance in an intimate setting lets people appreciate the beauty of ideas they might otherwise despise. And one such challenging idea is gay marriage, which of course still causes much distress. Man-to-man affection is at the core of HE&HE, a piece Michael Biello and Dan Martin created in the ’80s, which they reset on dancers John Luna and Scott McPheeters for a recent program.
A few minutes into HE&HE, the dancers share a couch — slipping, sliding and cuddling. All is sweet and G-rated, when suddenly from somebody’s crotch, out pops a balloon in the shape of a little horse, as if an elaborate, outrageous erection had just been born.
It’s shocking image, and as we sucked in a collective gasp, a tremor passed through this audience of about 100. A moment later, though, we got it, and our laughter echoed off the rafters of the Performance Garage.
The dancers helped us feel the idea that, yes, love can be dangerous and strange — but also that love is just love, it’s silly and for everyone. It’s a message that even the most obtuse could get, I sincerely believe, if only they’d sit in the audience and share the feeling. Though the problem, as always, is to get the skeptical through the door.
Thirty years ago, I believed that art could transform politics. City Paper was founded on the principle that art and politics were two sides of the same coin, and that people could transcend their fears by imbibing a spirit that everyone shares.
That bodies in motion can rebalance the body politic is implicit in all the works in PDP’s series, particularly those that date back to a time before Reagan and AIDS — before politics became hateful and love turned toxic. Artists like Biello, Martin, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Terry Fox and Jano Cohen thrived around South Street, claiming the whole city as their stage. As Cohen put it, we “made a difference in the world of ideas.”
Dance was a prominent part of political street theater: promoting nuclear freezes, human rights and respect for the environment. But then, as social divisions escalated into the Culture Wars, the arts came under fire and demagogues savaged the National Endowment for the Arts. Gays, “Peaceniks,” artists, minorities and (to a great extent) women were further marginalized by a philosophy of government corporatism that promised good times to the morally blind.
Now that the economic bubble has burst and corporate culture discredited, America may be ready once again to be moved by its artists. Especially by live, intimate performances like these, where artists take chances for audiences ready to catch them.
If we could only get those most in need through the door.