American Stories: From Civil wars to civil rites — Moving beyond John Brown with David Dorfman & Camille Brown

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2009, 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

(First published on the DI on July 16, 2009 and re-published today thanks to DI Co-Principal Sponsor Slippery Rock Dance,   this  piece is just one of the more than  2,000 Flash Reviews of performances, books, cinema, and art from around the world by 150 artist-critics covered by the  DI/AV since 1998 . To learn how you can obtain your own copy of the DI Archives, e-mail To support the DI/AV’s ongoing work, please make a donation today by designating your gift through PayPal to or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Camille A. Brown performs this Saturday and Sunday at the Joyce Theater in New York.)

NEW YORK — David Dorfman is a messy guy. A subversively messy guy. Not his army of superhuman dancers, nor his luscious, sweeping choreography. Not his design team, nor his vision. Not his workshops for corporate outreach, nor his master classes for athletes. Not his chairmanship of the Connecticut College dance department, nor his stewardship of one of our most important companies — his own. His is not an untidy craftsman, but David Dorfman is a messy artist. Messing with things in disarming, informal, personable, personal, complicated, volatile, well-meaning, demanding, unpleasant and thus deeply, vitally, importantly, and inherently American ways. He will not provide easy resolutions for the violence and chaos of our historic and contemporary foils. But, once again, with “Disavowal,” seen at Danspace Project, he remains ever loyal to banging away at our hostilities in a constant search for our shared humanity.

In “Disavowal,” Dorfman takes famed abolitionist and “race traitor” John Brown as his springboard. Brown’s crusade is as messy as they come, having played a major role in sparking our bitter Civil War. The father of 20 children, he is also considered by some to be the father of American terrorism, a religious zealot practicing armed insurrection and murder. For others, he was a valiant martyr who died so that millions of American slaves could be free. After Brown’s capture and public hanging, Frederick Douglass wrote: “His zeal in the cause of freedom was infinitely superior to mine. Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun. I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for him.” President Lincoln called Brown “a misguided fanatic.” With this figure as one’s model for activism, as with the Weathermen who provided source material for Dorfman’s “underground,” ambivalence abounds.

Dorfman plunders the depths of frustrated fatherhood repeatedly throughout the work, beginning the piece with a propaganda commercial on behalf of the mythic PAPA (People in Advocacy for Perspective Adjustments). Throughout the evening, he embodies a shifting series of patriarchic incarnations — from his familiar role of benevolent company director, persistently warm and affectionately insistent, to dogmatic cult leader demanding violence, absolute loyalty and “tolerance by any means necessary.” Each manifestation of PAPA provides opportunities to consider the easy precipice into tyranny when one is allowed unquestioned influence over another. Kyle Abraham, Patrick Ferrari, Renuka Hines, Tania Isaac, Molly Poerstel, Jenna Riegel, Karl Rogers, and Whitney Tucker devour the space in a number of demanding dance drills and flit between being mischievous urchins and chastised acolytes. They dance like furies, exploding with stunning athletic prowess and seemingly inhuman skill. At times, in the throes of a movement sequence, they seem to have just descended from Mt. Olympus (or the Super Friends Hall of Justice) and then Dorfman yells “Molly don’t run like a girl” and Athena is relegated to humankind once more.

As the piece evolves and the performers reach ever increasing heights of virtuosity, Dorfman manages to exploit the widening gap between good ol’ David and his youthful cadre by tackling the many other gaps that lay between leaders and their people. Regardless of how loving, well-intentioned, or righteous the path may be, those in charge carry a burden of alienation from those they control.

Upon entering the church, I am invited to sit anywhere. Dorfman is seated on an overturned bucket with his arms tied behind him and his legs bound by yarn. The dancers are playing cards on the risers and people are milling around the space in search of good seating. There are no chairs and the atmosphere is that of a town commons of sorts, with members of the company dressed in Civil War-epoch wools. I begin thinking of abolitionism and wondering how far we’ve come from the Civil War, from Civil Rights. We’ve got the Obamas, we’ve got the recent NegrObies — as Village Voice writer James Hannaham dubbed this year’s off-Broadway awards — and while downtown dance seems to be joining the Obie judges in what Hannaham calls the “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” phenomenon, I’m still waiting for someone to make a piece about Robert Williams, whose book “Negroes with Guns” offered fair arguments for black armed self-defense. I hate guns, but I’m ready for a darker shade to the hero’s palette.

I find myself happily conflicted for the duration of “Disavowal.” Race and authority are complicated territories and I appreciate that Dorfman offers no answers, but forces us to simmer in the clutter of rights, access, ownership, property and guilt. Hines, a gorgeous recent Columbia graduate who I’ve been tracking in Barnard dance concerts for a few years, proclaims, “I want white. I don’t want to be white. I just want what you have, to be neutral, to be Not a Color. I want to be a person.” The delivery is slightly soft, a little lost coming from a young woman, but the reach is far, for all those who have wished they could find themselves UNmarked, UNpigeonholed, and UNquestioned in their right to stand beside you — in, for instance, a dance piece like this one that happens to need more marked people in the cast in order to foreground the issues of being marked. When Rogers apologizes to Abraham for “everything that’s ever happened to you” and Abraham responds that it’s not enough, the impotency of white guilt seethes through the air. However, when Rogers asks what would be enough and Abraham decides that getting an audience member’s house, a second member’s car and a third to pay his student loans would do it, Rogers then derides him for not earning those things and retracts the apology. It is a witty and biting challenge to a kind of liberalism that wants to achieve equality without sacrifice.

Later in the dance, we are asked to choose the dancer we think we are most like and go sit with him or her. Some of the dancers take some of the audience members who have been sitting by them and bring them on stage, and the fluidity and mobility of the audience experience allows us to feel like we have been together for much longer than an hour. If feels, appropriately, like we are a congregation of sorts, gathering because it is the ritual of our shared community. But the groupings become factions as dancers and audience choose one of two options, with Abraham and Isaac trying to bring Hines and other dancers and audience members over to their small alliance that opposes the growing white majority. However, Hines remains standing, a model of ambivalence.

“Disavowal” is adamantly exhaustive, physically rigorous and staunchly informal, with Dorfman as a democratic despot who revels us with excess and need.

Camille A. Brown is a force of nature; her recent collection of works presented at Joyce SoHo, and seen June 7, was an extensive and exhaustive survey of her unrelenting curiosity. The substantial amount of work offered (after two hours I had to leave with two pieces still remaining) revealed Brown’s abundance of ideas, penchant for hard work, and generosity to her peers — with dances by Francine E. Ott and the ever-exquisite Kyle Abraham included on the roster. Previously known as a dynamic and forceful performer for Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Brown is quickly making a name for herself as a choreographic voice to be reckoned with. Since her last self-produced concert two and a half years ago at Joyce SoHo, she has been commissioned by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Philadanco, took part in Fall for Dance at Lincoln Center and E-moves at Harlem Stage, and shown why she is a highly sought after commodity on the college repertory circuit, with a jubilant version of “Second Line” set on Hunter College students this past spring. There is broad appeal in her vibrant dance sequences and razor sharp wit.

I was particularly curious to see how Brown’s work compared to Dorfman’s “Disavowal.” A premiere, “Matchstick,” takes a moment 50 years after the Civil War (and 50 years before the Civil Rights movement hits full stride) as its focus. The program also included am homage to Brown’s grandmother and a work in progress looking at more recent “back in the day” junctures in African-American history. I wondered how a younger, black, female choreographer might address issues around race and social responsibilities. Brown does effectively offer a lot to the dialogue, but I soon realized that to saddle her with so much socio-political expectation was unfair. She’s an artist clearly aware of cultural trends, legacies and representations, but she’s also at her best when she is celebrating, joyous, and irreverent. She opens the show with “Mary,” a solo for her grandmother. Though not quite poignant, it is still a lovely dance that I’m sure would have made grandma proud. Here, Brown’s ever-so-fast shifting and super-smooth style detracts from the powerful passage of one woman’s life, revealed behind the performer in a projected collage by Q Ragsdale. Struggles portrayed and efforts embodied are fleeting and become part of a general wash of movement from an exquisite dancer with great command over her physical faculties.

“Matchstick” is danced stunningly by Kevin Guy, Otis Donovan Herring, Juel D. Lane and Keon Thoulouis. It’s a highly theatrical work, set around a table covered in papers laminated onto it that the men repeatedly point at, slap, slice and attempt to sweep away with dramatic arm gestures. With rolling shoulders and fisted punches, they exert tremendous energy matched by the live piano from Brandon McCune and Farai Malianga’s fervent beating on a flamenco percussion box. Brown pushes the dancers until they are drenched and dripping, but as a danced representation of an imagined meeting of community leaders, it wavers around a kind of old-fashioned structure. Not because of its narrative — Bill T. Jones’s recent return of “Chapel/Chapter” to the Harlem Stage Gatehouse shows how narratives can be stunningly and innovatively woven and deconstructed — but because it doesn’t choreographically reach beyond traditional staging and remains mired in literal storytelling. The dancing is passionate, impressive, and dynamic, with expansive and forceful gesticulations reflecting a heated debate. But a deeper poignancy isn’t realized until J. Michael Kinsey arrives to perform poetry by himself and Dana Gournier. It is with this spoken exposition that we gather the specifics of struggle and despair that accompany dreams of migrating north to escape lynching and poverty. As dance theater it works for a general audience and could be highly valuable in dance education settings, but I wanted Brown to delve further into how the movement could have reflected the profound mix of desolation and hope that the text effectively pierces us with.

She’s on much stronger ground in an excerpt of her acclaimed 2007 solo “The Evolution of a Secured Feminine” and a restaging of “The Groove to Nobody’s Business,” a work originally created for her company and later commissioned in an expanded version by Judith Jamison for the Ailey company. Both dances employ highly theatrical devices as well, but the physical vocabularies make for much less generic portrayals and need few words to explicate. Brown effectively channels an abundance of characteristics that are both sophisticated and insistently, deliciously, vernacular.

“1 Second Past the Future,” a group work in progress, begins to a medley sung by Crystal Monee Halls. Antonio Brown, Beatrice Capote, Belen Estrada, Cahterine Foster, Indira Goodwine, Kevin Guy, Eriko JImbo, Juel D. Lane and Rohiatou Siby execute the choreography with expansive vigor. The dance hasn’t reached the complex level of compositional hijinks that Brown achieves in “The Groove to Nobody’s Business,” but Kinsey imbues the piece with lively commentary as a light-hearted heckler who interrupts Halls’s singing and guitar playing with a demand to “bring this to an end.” He critiques the work moving onstage from a seat in the house, complaining that he’s “tired of this modern dance, soul-singing,” calling Halls tired with her “ain’t got no man” blues and telling the “twinkle Joes” to get into position for the next dance. He begins a rant about how people today are different, that men and women behave differently, no longer seeming to care for one another. After a round of playful locking and a mock battle punctuated by Jimbo’s one-handed pike, Halls joins in with Kinsey’s calls for interpersonal compassion, proclaiming: “As we move forward, we’re losing ground.” They call for more sweetness between people and you can sense that Brown has chosen to use this run as a way of creating kinship and not simply as her own showcase. She’s building something far beyond the reaches of any concert — she’s building a community.

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