Keynesian economics, Marxism, love, gender and race are not topics theater-goers expect dancers to discuss on stage. In fact, a dancer’s voice is almost never heard during a performance. The third season of FOCUS Dance provides a unique platform for these voices at the Joyce Theater, and by promoting them throughout the U.S. and abroad. Presented by the Gotham Arts Exchange and curated by Laurie Uprichard, Program C amplifies two bold and distinct opinions from Yvonne Rainer and Urban Bush Women.

Yvonne Rainer's Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money? © Ian Douglas
Yvonne Rainer's Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?
© Ian Douglas

One characteristic of Yvonne Rainer’s artwork, whether in dance, film, or writing, is that it is sure to break from tradition. She challenges audiences and experiments with ways to test the boundaries of theater’s fourth wall. Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money? takes place amidst a sparse set that looks like the interior of a loft apartment (exposed brick wall, overstuffed easy chair) five times the size of any local New York abode. A woman sitting in the chair reads into a microphone, welcoming everyone to step right up and check out the group of dancers standing next to her. After her announcement the group begins a simple phrase in unison facing the back wall. While their movement changes direction with every step, they keep their backs to the audience. Each time the phrase repeats they make a quarter turn to face the stage left, front, stage right, and around again, showing the choreography from every angle. Through its lack of music, uniformity, and cyclical patterns, the dance establishes a strong visual rhythm. Rainer conditions the viewer’s eye to recognize this phrase whenever it’s repeated, even with variations, later in the piece.

Following that logic, one could ask if the choreography risks becoming monotonous. Rainer, however, adds layers to Assisted Living that pull the viewer's focus in different directions. For the majority of the piece, the dancer’s spoken word is the only sound, and all the performers wear microphones. These quotes touch on every hot-button issue facing the United States today, from the economy to civil rights and equality, from the aftermath of 9/11 to institutionalized racism in the prison system. These are topics Americans have radically different and deep-seated opinions on. Frankly, they’re not subjects for polite conversation because they are so polarizing. Assisted Living shines a bright light on matters many would rather leave in the dark. In this case, familiar choreography is a comforting element, and even helps the audience be more receptive to ideas they’d consider shocking in other circumstances.

Urban Bush Women © Yi-Chun Wu
Urban Bush Women
© Yi-Chun Wu

Nora Chipaumire and Urban Bush Women’s Dark Swan contains many of the same elements as Assisted Living, but the piece feels entirely different. Where Rainer questions, Chipaumire asserts. The eight women performing move as a unit for the majority of the piece. Their posture, movement, and overall attitude connote strength. Dark Swan begins with all the dancers standing, while subtle shivers build until they become full body convulsions. Shivering is not a dominant gesture, but the commitment each dancer dedicates to the action makes it so.

Spoken word is also used in Dark Swan, again with social and racial implications. One dancer provides sound effects to the convulsions. Noises oscillate between deep sensual breaths and ragged cries interspersed with the words “black” and “watch me,” among others. Chipaumire was motivated by her mother as an example of inspirational Black and African women; many of the Urban Bush Women dancers share a similar background. Dark Swan’s success is that this specificity actually makes its message more universal. The dancers demonstrate the self-confidence and satisfaction that every person hopes to achieve in their lifetime. That Chipaumire’s concept originated as a solo and has been adapted to both larger casts and all-male casts proves this point.

This program takes FOCUS Dance’s mission to heart, sharing two American points of view in surprising new ways.