at the Dance Center of Columbia College, May 11-13

For several years now funders have been handing out money to dance and other arts groups that actively involve “the community” in “the process.” The underlying assumption is that with all the poverty, ignorance, and just plain suffering in our country we can’t afford the merely beautiful. If art’s going to be funded, it must serve some social and often political purpose.

Just take a look at this year’s dance offerings in Chicago: we had Bill T. Jones in Still/Here working with “the dying” (a rather broad category, we admit) and Liz Lerman working with the elderly (among others–for the first time some critics were the targets of community outreach when she hosted a movement workshop for artists and arts handmaidens). Donald Byrd’s Minstrel Show explored prejudice, particularly against blacks, and Jane Comfort’s S/he reversed racial and sexual roles to comment on–what else?–racism and sexism. This focus produces an atmosphere of vague accusation and ill feeling: Comfort’s piece was not only simpleminded but vulgar and mean-spirited. Thankfully, in this group it was the exception rather than the rule. Lerman, who’s been working with the elderly for 15 or 20 years, has something of the opposite problem: sometimes she produces long, repetitive pieces because she’s too sympathetic to edit the “raw material” her dancers and workshop participants provide.

Pepatian–a small group from New York headed by a Puerto Rican husband-and-wife team–take the gentle, understanding approach: there’s nothing mean or accusatory in their work, only good intentions. But where Lerman listened too well to her sources, choreographer Merian Soto and sculptor Pepon Osorio haven’t listened well enough, creatively enough, to the eight Bronx Latino families who provided the raw material of Familias: it offers little but cliches and often in a mimed form that underlines the stereotypes.

Soto and Osorio work a generic universe. Throughout, the stories are indistinguishable: we don’t know who’s who, which experiences belong to which family, or even, quite frankly, how many families are represented. Because the dancers shift roles during the piece, it’s also difficult sometimes to tell what point is being made. In one section, for example, two performers simulate intercourse. Because the male dancer has been playing son characters, and the female dancer has been performing strong maternal roles, incest is unexpectedly suggested. There’s no setup for this, it just happens, and the piece makes no comment on it and never comes back to it. Continued role jumping further blurs the possibilities.

Perhaps more problematic, the stories told tend to underscore the most tragic images of Latinos: drug use, teen pregnancy, poverty. These issues reflect reality, of course, but they’re presented so broadly here they’re like subject headings. Lacking any individual human dimension, Familias makes it nearly impossible to care one way or another.

A related question: what is the community being described? “Latino” is not fungible with “Puerto Rican” or “Guatemalan.” And there’s an underlying endorsement here of the kinds of “family values” most Republicans would find charming. The piece neglects one of the most obvious facts about Latino, particularly Puerto Rican, families–that they’re mostly headed by single women. The only “formal” family portrait shows the more traditional nuclear family. Does this reflect the families who worked on the project? Or most of them? Or is this merely an idealized image? And if so, why this model? And how are we in the audience supposed to differentiate between reflection and hope? If this doesn’t reflect the families, why weren’t their models just as clearly presented?

Aesthetically Familias (billed as a work in progress, though the Dance Center charged full admission) is a mess. The images and stories are frequently so obvious as to need no decoding whatsoever. In the opening section the five dancers clasp hands, crouch low, and scurry along with fearful looks. Clearly they’re a family crossing some border, which requires absolute unity and trust among them–a closeness that persists and “explains” the violent trauma when the children grow up and want to leave the family. True, there’s a visceral response when the mother grips her daughter and throws all her strength into holding her back, but the obviousness and straightforwardness of the story undercuts our emotional response.

The sections in Familias are unconnected. They end with cheap, unsatisfactory resolutions or no resolutions. In one scene four family members heap accusations on a young woman (“You’re not the daughter I wanted,” “Stay out of my room”) sitting in a spotlight like a criminal; predictably she blows up, accusing them and defending herself, and they try to placate her. This familiar family dynamic is “resolved” with a sudden, incongruous order to smile for a family portrait. A scene in which an alcoholic son succumbs to the female family members’ oppressive compassion and goodness, then receives their ministrations, has no resolution at all.

The question-and-answer period provided a hint of where Pepatian has gone wrong. Soto began by saying that this kind of discussion can illuminate what’s not clear in the piece. But clarity isn’t the aim of art; art thrives on indirection and ambivalence, nuance and paradox. We’re not engaged by the thoroughly explained. Of course a thorough muddle isn’t the aim either. But some degree of mystery is, and one section here (though it goes on too long) shows that Pepatian can be provocatively mysterious: it juxtaposes a film of babies crying or smiling with dancers in agonized poses amid a “field” of white bundles–row upon row of swaddled infants. When an audience member asked about this section (and several others chimed in), the artists onstage smiled and said that it always elicited the most questions. For good reason–the feeling it communicates is urgent but the meaning isn’t completely clear. It pricks the imagination: why is it gloomy, dark, almost nightmarish? Soto’s “clarification”–that this section was supposed to reflect on the inner child in us–had people shaking their heads.

Despite the onstage presence of little children, Familias feels airless, packed with received wisdom. Hearing a baby fussing in the wings recalled how fluid and spontaneous family life can be–how rapidly and unexpectedly things can shift. Yet that’s a fact the supposedly instructive Familias doesn’t even begin to capture, let alone explore.

Familias comes off as disingenuous. On the one hand, it presents itself as art–it’s produced at the Dance Center, it invites arts critics to performances. But on the other, it’s a social service with a political sensibility, inviting families from “the community” to contribute. And in a way, each half protects the other from criticism: if the piece fails artistically, it can be rescued by its intention, its mission–it seems almost obscene to apply artistic criteria to a work so qualified by its nonartistic origins. And if it fails as social work, it’s because it’s nontraditional, artistic–its effects aren’t measurable by conventional standards.

Familias is absurd, and in the worst possible interpretation, cynical. The family members literally walk through, from one side of the stage to the other. They appear not as artistic collaborators (if nothing else, Liz Lerman has demonstrated that nonprofessional dancers can move inventively and gracefully) but as evidence of “authenticity.” Press releases implied that the stories of local families would somehow be included. But the workshops here totaled no more than five hours, and had no discernible impact on the piece. At least one local Latino community organizer who worked on the project questioned the purpose of the local workshops and the impact they had on the Chicago families. Indeed, what was the impact on the families from New York, and shouldn’t that impact be reflected somewhere in the piece?

In the end, Familias doesn’t work as art or arts education. Soto explained after the show that each dancer picks a family according to the issues he or she wants to deal with; she worked, for example, with a family affected by alcoholism. Perhaps, then, what Familias is really concerned with is art therapy–for the company members most of all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Matthew G. Hollerbush.