Slow dance

Why are so few companies addressing current events?

By Rita Felciano

At the first-ever National Critics Conference in Los Angeles last May, arts activist and writer Robert Atkins chaired a panel discussion, "Missing in Action: AIDS and Politically-Attuned Arts Writing Today." In the '80s and '90s, the premise went, AIDS had brought about the "most politically savvy, aesthetically satisfying, and consciousness-altering body of work" in recent years. "What has been the impact of this legacy on more recent nightmares, such as 9/11, breast cancer, the tsunami tragedy, or our impending eco-catastrophe?" the panel asked. "Has art with a political subtext been marginalized, and if so, what role have critics and editors played in this marginalization?"

These seem fair enough questions to raise in another context: at the end of another year. In the fall of 2005, musings on the link between politics and art were provoked by the Bay Area debuts of two companies from Africa. Compagnie Jant-Bi's Fagaala was inspired by a novel about the genocide in Rwanda; Studios Kabako's Triptyque Sans Titre grew out of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both of these works beautifully, and even brilliantly, shone a light on horrific recent history. They did so without pointing fingers or engaging in political grandstanding. They succeeded by using the material at hand eloquently and convincingly.

The Bay Area used to be a hotbed for artists who tackled topics that went beyond formal concerns, who dealt with issues that nagged at our sense of values long after the curtain had come down – works by Joe Goode, Krissy Keefer, Sara Shelton Mann, and Keith Hennessy come to mind. In the process of dealing with what it means to be alive, these artists created new formal and often thrilling dance structures that pushed the boundaries of established norms. Yet few of their successors seem to feel the need to make work about the pressing issues of our own time.

In 2005 there were exceptions, of course. Keefer indefatigably keeps at it. Her hilarious Ice, a rant about the cost of environmental indifference, pierced like a stiletto – but when she passionately pleaded for the artist's social engagement during a panel discussion at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, the ennui from the other artists present oozed as thick as sludge. Jo Kreiter choreographs works that address labor, agribusiness, GMOs, and the need for clean water. Brenda Way's A Train Heading South looked at global warming. Exonerees – unjustly convicted prisoners – provided David Popalisky haunting material for his Barred from Life.

Yet, for the most part, much new work still revolves around issues of identity, gender, race, and interpersonal relationships. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Artists have to make work that grows out of themselves, and their first responsibility is to make it as formally fresh, coherent, and eloquent as they can. Otherwise they might as well step on a bully pulpit and preach to the already converted (and turn the rest of us off). But is it possible that the obscenities of the death penalty or the Iraq war held no resonance for contemporary dance-makers? Both Paul Taylor and Mark Morris have found ways to choreograph beautifully within frameworks that allow for the subtext of their being citizens as well as artists. Why do we not see more socially engaged work?

If, as Ezra Pound said, "the artist is the antenna of the race," does it follow that the artist also has a responsibility toward the race? For the panelists of the Los Angeles conference, the question was moot. They wanted to know why there was so much less socially engaged art and art writing. Tentative answers included a cultural tilt toward the right; the disappearance of funding and media outlets; and a general fatigue and a sense of hopelessness about being able to make a difference. None of these answers seemed the satisfy either the audience – which was very small, maybe also a sign of the times – or the panelists. One comment referred to the civil rights era and the Vietnam War, tumultuous times in history that generated good art. Somebody pointed out that the resistance to the war, and the art that came out of it, only took off after the draft was reinstated and the sons of the middle class were called up to serve.

Every Friday, PBS's NewsHour runs photographs of American soldiers who died the previous week. Are these faces that silently look at us – not to mention the Iraqi victims who go largely unmemorialized – so anonymous that we can look at them without really seeing them? Are they just media images? In his speech accepting the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature (read the speech in its entirety at www.danceinsider.com/f2005/f1209_1.html), Harold Pinter virulently attacked America and its post-World War II power politics (and Britain, for its complicity), but he also spoke as an artist and as a citizen, saying it was the duty of the writer to smash the mirrors in front of us and mash the images they represent. Otherwise, he said, "we have no hope of restoring what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man."

The following, in no particular order, is not a "top 10" but simply a list of works, people, and events that particularly resonated in 2005.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival, for putting on so much good work with so little money.

The newly invigorated Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for its smart and broadly inclusive programming.

The film Ballets Russes, for its honoring of ancestors both living and deceased.

LEVYdance, for its guts and clear-eyed realization of choreographer Benjamin Levy's invigorating vision.

Sean Dorsey, for the development of a theatrical language which eloquently speaks to all of us.

Chitresh Das, for his partnering of Kathak with yet another vocabulary – tap dancing.

Tina LeBlanc, for the beauty and musicality of dancing that looks better every year.

Alex Ketley, who tried the impossible: making dance from verbal grammar.

Anna Halprin, for pulling two-dozen seniors out of their nursing homes and putting them into a show, Seniors Rocking.

Kegan Marlin, Kerry Sneed, and Paco Gomes – looking forward to what you'll come up in 2006.