Room for Many More!

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange With Mordine & Company Dance Theatre

at the Chicago Historical Society, November 3 and 4

Liberalism used to make sense in America. Old-style liberalism, the kind Hubert Humphrey exemplified, was based on a humanist vision of the equal dignity and worth of all people. It’s a hard message to preach these days, as groups that were liberated–blacks, women, and gays, among others–have often adopted a militant, antihumanist ideology that focuses on their victimization and implicitly demands revenge or atonement.

Liberalism can still make sense, however. One of its roots has always been a feeling for the importance of all people to history. The tides of migration following historical events–of a black family moving from Natchez to Chicago, or a gay man from Des Moines to San Francisco–are as important to history as the power relations between Washington and Moscow. It’s fitting, then, that the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange–which has long championed the liberal value of diversity by including elderly dancers and people of color–should put on a performance, in collaboration with Mordine & Company Dance Theatre, at the Chicago Historical Society. The surprise is how effective, imaginative, and entertaining it was.

Room for Many More! is conducted as a tour of the museum, with performers appearing around almost every corner. When you enter the museum you walk past three teenage girls in white tops and black pants holding poses; one girl, lying on her side on a flat radiator covering, recites a short speech about how she may be related to one of the young women in the Salem witch trials, and how fascinated she is by them. Ushers take your coat and whisk you past performers dancing with coatracks and on cafeteria tables stacked with overturned chairs. Another group of dancers shouts a greeting from a nearby freight elevator. A tour guide (Peter DiMuro) gathers the audience in the main entrance hall and sends us down the main corridor on the first floor. In the first room, Winston Damon drums as a group of about 15 high school girls move while calling out their ancestry–“Thai-French-Danish,” “Irish-Spanish,” “Mexican-American”–and things that their ancestors had done (“My great grandfather was an inventor,” “My great great grandfather was powerful in the Guatemalan military”). And so it went, from one room to another.

Several sections stuck in my mind because they were charming, eerie, moving, or funny. Andy Torres, a black man in his 60s, sings “Sixteen Tons” in the coat-check room as about ten dancers animate the coats on their hangers, making headless monsters whose hands act out the song. Several young women in business clothes sprawl dangerously over the banisters of the main staircase as the audience climbs past them; earlier, they were frozen in place in the museum’s warrenlike administrative area. A black woman in her late 50s, seated in a room filled with paintings about the black migration to the north, tells about coming to Illinois to go to college; she says she got homesick at Christmas and took the bus home, but the leaking tin bus shelter for coloreds convinced her to return to school. She had to work in the cotton fields for two weeks to earn $11, and was still short of the $18 she needed for a ticket north. On the circular staircase used in Jane Byrne’s daughter’s wedding, two men join as bride and groom in a wedding processional accompanied by Scott Putman’s falsetto rendition of “Chapel of Love.” Plain silliness is the predominant feeling at times: DiMuro suddenly switches to a French accent, taking on the character of a Quebec cousin named Jacques; when DiMuro switches back, he has audience members chant “Jacques is gone, Peter’s back.”

Mordine & Company Dance Theatre gave a ravishing performance of an excerpt from Shirley Mordine’s EdgeMode, with dancers coming down the spiral staircase past a double file of audience members. In fact one of the pleasures of this performance was being able to almost touch the dancers and hear the silence as they landed lithely from a jump. This closeness definitely enhances the effectiveness of Lerman’s company; her dancers’ clear, warm personalities are just as important as their dancing skills. Lerman’s choreography is designed for them: she concentrates more on people moving in space and relating to one another than on virtuosity. These are human-scaled dances, made more accessible by being so close to us.

After seeing this performance, I was struck by how fascist a proscenium stage can be: it frames the performers and separates them from the audience, making them into something not quite human. An effective performance on a proscenium stage requires exaggeration, a “larger than life” quality. This superhuman quality naturally gives the events onstage an archetypal resonance and sacral overtone.

I’ve often thought that the true religion of our liberal humanist culture is its art, for that’s the only place that provides living access to the sacred. But art is too small a container for the spirit. Our culture makes artists into priests, the only ones able to intercede in the world of spirit. Small wonder that many artists like Lerman are trying to bring art to the people–they’re really bringing the sacred into our lives.

This is not a natural arrangement, however, but a consequence of humanism’s resolute atheism. Humanism insists that rationality is the highest human capability. Simply, Reason is its God. That leaves no room for things that are larger than we are, for the sacred; this is the fundamental failing of humanism, for which I know no cure.