AT NEW YEAR'S, the influential dance critic Arlene Croce wrote a sizzling piece for The New Yorker attacking "victim art." She was disturbed that Bill T. Jones, a hotshot choreographer/dancer who is HIV positive, planned to put himself and other fatally ill performers onstage in Still/Here, a piece about their impending deaths that mixes dance and the videotaped spoken word. So disturbed, in fact, that Croce refused to attend or review the concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Her savage non-review of the Jones work ("a messianic traveling medicine show," she called it) fired up the dance world.
The controversy, says Tucson choreographer Ellen Bromberg, is still "on the tip of everyone's tongues." The article "opened up a dialogue in the arts community every place I've been, from San Diego to San Francisco to Tucson."
There's a chance the issue could come up again in the Old Pueblo next week. On Tuesday, Bromberg opens Singing Myself a Lullaby, a collaborative piece she put together with dancer John Henry, video artist Douglas Rosenberg and composer Victor Spiegel. The evening-length, multimedia work is to be performed solo at the Historic Y Theater by Henry, who is dying of AIDS.
If, as Bromberg says, the dance work is not exactly about AIDS, "It's about AIDS as the catalyst for self-examination. The illness becomes a metaphor for transformation. The piece is a metaphor for letting go."
Bromberg talked about her work while she relaxed over a cup of cappuccino in a local café several weeks before the premiere. A Tucson native, Bromberg taught modern dance at the UA for several years until recently, when she was sidelined by a serious knee injury. Her works have won her a national reputation and any number of prizes. If she appreciates Croce getting people actually to talk about modern dance, that most vulnerable of art forms, Bromberg doesn't agree with the critic's premise that art ought to erect a rigid barrier between the personal and the professional.
"The purpose of art is to push boundaries," Bromberg says. "Jones is asking, 'What is performance? Where does the wall disappear?' There's something Croce doesn't understand about art as a process. She doesn't understand that he's making art from his life--that's indispensable. There's room for issues like death. Death has preoccupied artists since the beginning of time."
Bromberg didn't exactly understand that death was at issue when Henry first asked her to choreograph a dance for him.
"John Henry is someone I worked with in San Francisco in the 1980s," explains Bromberg, who spent many years in the Bay Area before returning to her hometown. A well-known dancer and choreographer, Henry had danced with San Francisco Ballet, Merce Cunningham and Margaret Jenkins dance companies and recently won an award for his work in arts education. "He had a company called Henry Harris Green. I was a guest choreographer with them. John and I had an especially good working relationship.
"We parted ways, then 12 or 13 years later I got a call from him out of the blue asking me to make a piece for him about AIDS. I had never been asked to do a piece before on a specific subject and I was so busy. Six months later he called again. I didn't get it until then. I said, 'John, are you sick?' "
He was. Now 47, Henry's been HIV-positive for 12 years, Bromberg says, and has had AIDS for eight. She agreed to do the project.
Bromberg constructed the dance as a series of "sheddings," with Henry successively examining a variety of his self-images and then giving them up. In each phase, she says, "He lives through a memory of what he was and lets go. He takes off a layer of clothing. He lets go and makes peace with himself. There are moments of great beauty for John."
The work certainly isn't intended to evoke pity, or, as Croce said of Jones' piece, force us to feel sorry for the dancer.
"He's dying. That's a fact...My hope is that the piece reveals that we are all dying. Every time we change, something dies. We look in the mirror and see that we're middle-aged women now...We all destroy images of ourselves throughout our lives. I was a dancer for many years. (Giving it up because of injuries) was a long grieving process for me. There's a constant shedding of skins to the true self."
Lullabye is a collage of high-tech videos and slides on a screen, contrasting with the earthy materials of chalk, sand and clay used by the dancer onstage. The images on the screen, of Henry dancing, are "his partners in the piece," the most technologically complex work Bromberg has attempted. "There are so many pieces of equipment," she exclaims. "I'm so used to having just the human body as a medium of expression."
Bromberg understands that the complicated undertaking is risky. "It could be exciting or it could be one of those 'learning pieces,' " she says philosophically. Still, she has to take the risk, even if it means creating a dance out of death or offending such cultural guardians as Croce.
"Modern dance is not just a style of dancing, it's a way of thinking about life," she says. "It's questioning, pushing boundaries. I'm stretching myself."
Singing Myself a Lullaby, a performance/video collaboration by Ellen Bromberg, John Henry, Douglas Rosenberg and Victor Spiegel, opens at 8 p.m., Tuesday, March 7, at the One in Ten Theater in the Historic Y, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Afterward, psychologist Peter Goldblum will lead a discussion of Living Through the Dying Process Through Metaphor. The concerts are a co-production with the Tucson AIDS Project. Tickets are $12 general, $10 for students and seniors. For reservations or for more information call 570-6005.
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