Choreographing War

Movie poster for Lone Survivor.
Movie poster for Lone Survivor.

The latest war film to address America’s ongoing overseas engagement is Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” the story of a doomed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. In something of a surprise, it topped the box office last week, becoming one of the few post-9/11 military films to find a broad commercial audience. Many attempts in the past few years, though critically acclaimed (like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Messenger,” etc.) have struggled to attract indifferent viewers. But at least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, it seems not much war has popped up thematically in dance in the past decade. (Note: Since the initial publishing of this post, Bill T. Jones’  “Blind Date” (2005), Ronald K. Brown’s “Come Ye” (2003), and Garth Fagan’s “Life: Dark/Light” have been brought to my attention.) Please continue to share, in the comments section, examples of others works or artists that you’ve encountered that have engaged with the subject.

But on Thursday night at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, war and dance was the topic at hand. Not a survey of the field but a look at the repertory of Paul Taylor, the veteran modern dance choreographer whose company celebrates its 60th anniversary this spring. Writer and scholar Suzanne Carbonneau, author of the forthcoming Taylor biography, discussed Taylor’s approach to war in four works spanning a quarter century.

Company B
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Company B
Photo by Paul B. Goode

In “Company B” (1991), Carbonneau showed how Taylor subtly undermines the romanticization of World War II. In “Banquet of Vulture” (2008), she pointed to the usually apolitical Taylor’s rage against the war in Iraq. In a nod to Kurt Jooss’ 1932 “The Green Table,” perhaps the most famous of anti-war dances, Taylor borrowed the rigid bearing and heavy steps of the character of Death to create his own character explicitly modeled on George W. Bush.  In “Sunset” (1983), war remains hovering offstage; its only literal reference is the uniforms worn by the men. But in that work, Taylor zooms in on the way war disrupts youth and robs soldiers and their sweethearts of carefree innocence.

Dance isn’t always great at commenting on politics – some issues are just too complicated to capture in a nuanced way without words. But when it comes to illustrating how war affects our social relationships and communal psyche, dance may have something valuable to say.

From the evidence on Thursday, Paul Taylor is clearly committed to exploring these themes. Who among contemporary choreographers will join him?

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