No doubt audiences were chilled by the season opener for the 2006 American Dance Festival. Paul Taylor’s Banquet for Vultures painted a bleak, if somewhat reductive, portrait of the current geopolitical dilemma during his company’s concert last weekend in Page Auditorium.

But since I have no interest in mischaracterizing the political views of those who do not possess them–or who lack the courage to claim them in public–I should hasten to note here that the word “current” in the sentence above is my assessment, and not the choreographer’s.

During the talkback after last Friday’s performance, Taylor’s redoubtable general manager, John Tomlinson, took pains to correct the audience’s mistaken impression that the anti-war piece was about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. “Paul is very clear that it’s not about any particular situation,” he said. “The work is universal.”

That disclaimer, which all the adults nodded sagely at, still did not prevent an 11-year-old girl in the audience from asking, moments later–from the mouths of babes, as it were–“Why are they making the president look like that?”

It was a perfectly sensible question, given the circumstances. And the frustration in the voice of a child who believes adults aren’t telling the truth leads us to similarly wonder, in turn: Would a similar sense of–discretion?–have once led Picasso to label a certain painting “A Series of Unfortunate Events (with Woman and Horse)” instead of “Guernica”?

For after an eerie prelude in which far fewer than a thousand points of light winked out, one by one, a dapper little man in a power suit–and a certain bowlegged swagger grotesquely amplified for the occasion–busily lead a group of blindered men and women in camo pants and gray T-shirts to their doom. The Frankensteinian, lead-footed turns Taylor gave the monster-as-executive (an able Michael Trusnovec) underlined the lack of subtlety in this leader’s machinations–and in the narrative and choreography in places as well.

The stiff mechanics of the leader’s tread contrasted with small trios of camouflaged dancers depicting the real desperation of soldiers scrambling under fire. If there’s true horror in this work–and I think there is–it lives in these moments, perhaps alone.

After them, a series of primitive chops from the leader’s hand downed the grunts, one by one, as they struggled simultaneously to follow orders and stay alive.

Resistance to the war was given the most cursory of glances here. In this narrative, Julie Tice, a dancer considerably smaller than Trusnovec, was ultimately little more than a straw woman, who rose briefly only to be cut down in a clearly doomed fight with an outsized executive/executioner. This demolition–again, applicable only to the universal, and clearly nothing else–took place immediately before the executive’s replacement, another man in a power suit, resumed his stomping, lurching walk. Quoting ancient monster movies, this time the executive moved toward the audience. Only the closing curtain ended his advance.

But if audiences returned to Duke on Monday night in search of different answers to the present political crisis, they were presented instead with a questionnaire administered through choreography: the world premiere of David Dorfman’s Underground.

The title itself references the Weather Underground, the name of one of the premier groups of radical activists during the 1960s. In the middle of Underground, Dorfman delivers from stage what he terms “a first communique from a huge fan” of the group.

After admitting he doesn’t know if he could do what they did–actually, after beginning with the almost incongruous words “I think you guys are so cool”–the choreographer cites what he believes to be the Weathermen’s greatest achievement: “You bombed 30 buildings without killing a single person.”

After a moment’s reflection, Dorfman admits, “Yes, you planned to kill people. But you didn’t. And that’s the part I like to think about.”

On its face, Dorfman’s monologue will likely strike some as too simple–and superficial–a reflection on the ethics of revolt. But the work surrounding it poses far more pointed questions to present-day war resisters, political protesters and activists of all stripes.

Dancer Karl Rogers holds an imaginary microphone, impersonating a newsman as he poses a series of queries to individual dancers at some points, and to the audience at others. Seemingly generic questions like “Does what you do make a difference?” gradually give way to a list of inquiries like “Are you a pacifist?” and “In a violent world, can you fight for peace?”

These are leavened by seemingly more casual inquiries that bear the tinge of psychological profile: “Are birds happy?” “Do sunsets make you sad?”

The questions could just as easily be posed by an interrogator in an undisclosed location as by a newsman on a set or city street. Future activists must be prepared to face them.

Apparently, they should also be prepared for the culture to misinterpret their actions–or forget them altogether. In a telling closing sequence, Molly Poerstel seems a statue of an activist, frozen in an evocative pose: her right palm flat on the ground, her left hand raised in a fist overhead. Her character is called back by an enthusiastic–and clueless–group of youth much more inclined to cheer her on than to actually assist her in her protest. Poerstel’s character repeatedly slingshots between the front lines and a group that throws her back into the fray but never joins her. In this twist on Sisyphus, the activist increasingly looks back to question the people she’s actually fighting for–and re-evaluate the cause.

Dorfman’s work has few answers for the current generation. It does, however, present an incomplete set of potentially crucial questions.

E-mail Byron at