"Underground" digs into protests
By Kyle MacMillan
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic
Posted: 03/02/2009 *
"Does what you do make a difference?"
That is the first of a few dozen questions spoken from the stage
and/or projected onto a giant rear screen Saturday evening at the
Newman Center for the Performing Arts in New York choreographer David
The fast-action multidisciplinary piece looked at the legacy of 1960s
protests, especially those of the violence-prone radical group,
Weather Underground, through the lens of the Internet age and
examined what activism means today.
Songs by groups M83 and Broken Social Scene as well as wordless,
often intense music by Jonathan Bepler powered an ever-changing
projected backdrop, with graphs, bold graphic effects and a patchwork
of photos and videos of '60s protesters.
The 10 members of David Dorfman Dance (including the choreographer
himself) sometimes punctuated and responded to what was on the
screen. Other times, they were the center of attention, with
recurring movements inspired by protests fists in the air, hands
behind the back as though handcuffed and the throwing of imaginary rocks.
In some of the most effective moments, as many as 52 volunteer
community dancers (demonstrating a kind of activism of their own),
amazingly well-rehearsed in just four sessions, swept back and forth
across the stage, suggesting the swarming, throbbing quality of a
crowd on edge.
The piece can be frustrating, because it never really makes a point
or takes a stand. While Dorfman's nostalgia for the '60s (he was 13
during Chicago's Days of Rage in 1969) and his leftist leanings are
obvious, he refrains from asserting any ideology or point of view.
Instead, the work pokes. It prods. It sends a call to action, a plea
to do something, but Dorfman leaves the form of that something to the
Running about 45 minutes, the piece seemed a bit short and curtailed,
given its ambition and scope. At the same time, it never really
connected emotionally touching the heart or slamming the gut.
But, later, on the drive home, images and ideas from the piece kept
coming back to my mind, making me realize that "underground" had
achieved its central purpose getting me to question my life.
Has what I've done made a difference?
Kyle MacMillan: 303-954-1675 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To see violence with greater clarity, troupe goes "underground"
By John Wenzel
The Denver Post
For all its qualities, dance isn't the first thing that comes to mind
when confronting violence. And no the dance-fighting in "West Side
Story" doesn't count.
But award-winning choreographer David Dorfman uses dance to ask the
question, "Is violence ever justified?" in his provocative work
"underground," which plays DU's Gates Concert Hall on Saturday.
Many on either side of the political divide would certainly answer
"yes" citing threats to their ways of life that ostensibly can be
addressed only with physical force. Dorfman uses the activities of
the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground to look further and
ask: "When does activism become terrorism?"
"This notion of distant dualities and black and white, I think it's
becoming yesterday," Dorfman said over the phone this week from his
office at Connecticut College. "We're getting a little bit more in
tune with the gray area. In the piece, I bring up the notion of 'Is
your country worth killing for?' And the very next line is, 'Is your
family worth killing for?' As you get older, you realize the
absolutes go out the window and it's a case-by-case basis."
Praised and debated by The New York Times and the San Francisco Bay
Guardian, the piece has circled the globe since it premiered in 2006
with Dorfman's now 24-year- old company.
"We performed it in Russia, and this TV director told me right
afterward, 'That last scene is a little funny but very disquieting.'
The essence of fanaticism, which is very connected to terrorism, is
definitely there," Dorfman said. "You see it in rock concerts, at
But how does the work address these issues?
Dorfman drapes original music from composer Jonathan Bepler and songs
by groups M83 and Broken Social Scene over spoken and projected
words, video and photos as his dancers act out scenarios that toe the
line between literal and interpretive.
"David's dance vocabulary is exuberantly physical, a real thrust
towards freedom of expression," said David Alan Harris, a friend of
Dorfman's who will be dancing in "underground." "That aligns closely
with the themes. Lots of dance has explosive freedom as an impetus,
but what's distinct about David is that he works with a particular
intellect and a commitment to social justice."
The show doesn't endorse a point of view, but rather takes an
ambivalent stance toward violent protest groups like the Weather
Underground, which Dorfman was exposed to while growing up in Chicago
in the '60s.
Dorfman's commitment to community extends to the cast of the work,
which at times includes nearly 50 people on stage, most culled from
"It was interesting that he was open to a lot of different styles and
ages and sizes of people," said Coleen Walsh, a choreographer who
teaches at CU and UNC. She heard about the piece through her board
membership on the Colorado Dance Alliance and was immediately
intrigued. "It was great opportunity for me, who hasn't performed in
10 years, to jump back in."
Theatrical, yet movement- centered. Weighty, but not preachy or
pedantic. Dorfman thinks "underground" is able to bridge these gaps.
"It's literal at points and has a narrative, but not one that's so
tight that we're doing a story line," Dorfman said. "It mostly deals
with how each person defines the responsibility that they want to
take in their lives.
"I like to dance really hard and even used to play football in high
school, but I would never throw a rock through a window or kill
another human being. The question is: Is legislation the complete
answer all the time, or do we need to get people in the streets
sometimes and express outrage?"
John Wenzel: 303-954-1642 or email@example.com