How Long Brethren?

Helen Tamiris
American Dance Festival

The tension built as Joe Bowie and Dallas McMurray stared at the audience, apparently frozen stiff for a long moment on the Page Auditorium stage last Thursday night. Then it broke, when McMurray abruptly flashed the audience the black power salute; his right arm raised 90 degrees at the elbow beside the body, his fist lifted up in the air. Why did the audience laugh? That’s easy: McMurray’s white, Bowie’s African American. The racial signifier was being used by the “wrong” person on stage, because he was uncomfortable, in a jam of some sort. Right?

Bowie and McMurray weren’t making up those moves on their own, of course. They were coming from Mark Morris, a white American choreographer who appropriated one symbol from African-American culture to make an off-hand joke at the start of his notable interpretation of Bach’s “Italian Concerto.”

The night before, during the American Dance Festival’s Past/Forward showcase concert, audiences saw How Long Brethren?, choreographer Helen Tamiris’ 1937 critique of American racism, set to black protest songs from that period.

Tamiris, a white choreographer, used an all-white company in its world premiere. If Dianne McIntyre’s reconstruction is reliable, having been made with the help of two dancers from the original production, stiff and exaggerated movements emulated the woes of Southern black people; their troubles clearly embodied, their backs bent with careexcept where they openly mocked minstrel show imagery.

For all this, African-based dance forms were nowhere in sight. The music they danced to wasn’t the original field recordings Lawrence Gellert collected in the South during the 1920s and ’30s, but Broadway composer Genevieve Pitot’s near-operatic orchestral arrangements, whose soaring sopranos and erudite diction were revisited in the 1990s by Amina Claudine Myers.

Are we in the presence of bad faith in either of these two works? Not likely.

But we are definitely in the presence of representation.

Here we have to define terms for a minute. Why? Because “represent” is one of those words that tend to point in several different directions, more or less at the same time. It can mean “to present again”or to bring something old back to the present tense, if the spoken emphasis falls on the second syllable.

(It’s tempting to conclude that the Tamiris work succeeded more in the first sense, while Rudy Perez’s I Like A View But I Like To Sit With My Back To It prevailed in the latter when we caught it early last week. More on that next week.)

In rap culture, the word is about showing respect for your roots or providing a good public example of your group or position. But the primary definition of “represent” has to do with substitution: something standing for something else. When the original experience is over, the original participants are not present, stage work can represent both, potentially in all three of the previously mentioned meanings above.

The arguments tend to start with this question: Is a particular art work a good or appropriate representation of its subject? If the work was created in the past, was it such a representation when it was initially produced? Is it still so now?

The questions become more complex when good faith is clearly not a part of the bargain. When Konstantin Grouss’ character minced about the stage, limp-wristed arms flailing this way and that at the start of Between Life and Death, Between Earth and Sky, his collaboration with Elena Saizafarova in the final International Choreographers in Residence concert, what was being satirized exactly: Gay men? America, since it immediately came after a Nixonian two-handed victory sign? American modern dance and its practitioners (another possibility, given the length and seeming pointlessness of the rest of his and Saizafarova’s group and individual tantrumssorry, dance works)?

Clearly, artists have the right to mock the subjects of their choosing. They can exaggerate, misrepresent and even falsify connections and representationspresumably in service of a higher truth. As Picasso once did, they may argue that poetic truth trumps facticity, that “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Then we have to judge if we believe them. Does the representation truly add anything to our understanding of the subject? Or is it a version of the old shell game, in which all substitutions are ultimately found out to be empty on the inside?

When I consider How Long Brethren? I have to note that its initial version won Dance Magazine‘s first annual award for modern group choreography in 1937. I also have to note that classicizing Gellert’s humble field recordings in a bid to somehow ennoble them is a cultural impulse that has largely passed from the scene. Our culture now has much more respect than it once did for the voice of the lone bluesman; operatic over-enunciation of rural dialect seems contrived to contemporary ears.

Where Tamiris’ movement vocabulary was bleeding edge in the 1930s, much of it now seems melodramatic to say the least. Though her intent was clearly sterling, her “Scottsboro” sequence is all but inscrutable at this point. Too often it resembles some animatronic malfunction to present-day eyes.

The best we can wish for the heartfelt, heartsick songs Gellert collected is that they be lifted out of the stiff orchestration and stiff choreography that currently gives them shape and voice. I believe they now need a representation closer to their sourceand one closer to us as well.

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