Deganit Shemy’s wonderful company—focused, committed, super strong women—makes muscular moves with considerable style throughout Arena, a full-length work that takes on organized sport as a metaphor for violence. Five dancers meet and face-off on a bare white stage, with a square playing field marked off in red tape.
The topic is rich, and so is the gestural vocabulary: flailing arms, torqued spines, bent wrists, distended hands. There are plainly rendered lunges, jumps, and huddles. There are stares, glares, hoots, and barks. One minute, a dancer twists her partner’s head back and around; another minute, a dancer kicks her partner’s leg from behind. There are wrestling contests and water breaks, faux-gas masks and clicking metronomes, tender bits and clusterfucks.
The whole sport thing, it turns out, sublimates our most primitive urges.
But staging real-life politics works best when empathy comes into play, and movement packs more bite when change, surprise, or sheer endurance complicate mimetic depictions. By Shemy’s account, the playing field is bestial and little more. But how come hockey is so much fun? And why is baseball the American game? Is there anything more to say about organized sport’s ritualized separation of winners from losers? Surely, athletes are more complicated, as is play.
Shemy’s choice to portray licensed confrontation is gutsy. So is her invocation of our complicity, evidenced in part by dancers who wait, pace and watch along the sidelines. I like the feigned hostility of the lighting by Lenore Doxsee that, whether beamed directly at the audience or flooding the square play area, recalls the cold expanse of metal halide used to light crowds and underpasses. And I like the waves of crowd noise that beckon the spectacle of the stadium. Watching the tortured groupings of the dancers onstage, it’s a short mental leap to picturing other tortured groupings in recent history, such as those in the photographs of Abu Ghraib.
Dance of this order makes a serious gamble.
For having to connect the dots between America’s tradition of violence and Shemy’s dance is what I take to be her point. It’s a point shared by the most urgent art being made today: to make us see clearly and feel deeply, amid the numbing effects of daily habit. Was, then, the static choreography and singular characterization of the dancers deliberate? As I watched these pristine movers act out suffering in cheerful and complementing athletic gear, the work seemed more about marketing than critique. Without understanding why these performers seemed so held and compelled, the representation of violence led nowhere, except to one more elegant dance. Is that enough?