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Dance and politics: a fruitful union

"Border Crossing," Off-Leash Area's latest production, opens tonight.
“Border Crossing,” Off-Leash Area’s latest production, opens tonight.

During a Saturday rehearsal of “Border Crossing,” Off Leash Area‘s new movement-theater work, choreographer and co-artistic director Jennifer Ilse transformed herself into a coyote. That’s coyote as in wild yipping canine, and coyote as in people smuggler – particularly those along the Mexico/Arizona border. Her face obscured by a colorful wolflike mask with an elongated snout, Ilse rhythmically stomped through a group of bundle-carrying performers portraying migrants seeking passage to a better life north.
Then she turned, revealing her snarling face. With her back hunched and fingers snaking from her hands, she enticed each migrant, one by one, with a danger-laden litany of promises and perils. If there was any uncertainty about the menace of Ilse’s performance, it was confirmed by her Doberman, Isabel, who, while still sitting on her cushion, raised her hackles and uttered a low, long growl.

“It’s off-leash area all right,” quipped Paul Herwig, Ilse’s husband and the troupe’s co-artistic director, as he bounded across the room to restrain Isabel. It certainly is. With their trademark fusion of Ilse’s expressive movement and Herwig’s visually inventive props and scenic elements, the couple is venturing into new territory with “Border Crossing,” which opens Thursday and runs through May 4: the politics and people of illegal immigration.
“Yes, definitely,” said Ilse when asked if “Border Crossing” is Off Leash’s most political work to date. “And we can’t help but wonder if no one will be completely satisfied with it. We don’t shy away from the issue. We state things quite bluntly. But we present these varying viewpoints quite equally.”

In the past month, several other Minneapolis choreographers have addressed political content in their dance works, with mixed results.

From a ranger to a stranded girl

“Border Crossing” is set along a portion of the Arizona/Mexico border that, depending on where you’re standing, could “belong” to the Tohono O’Odham Reservation, the Cabeza Prieta Wilderness or the town of Ajo (to cite a few place names). The viewpoints Ilse mentioned include those of a park ranger (Adri Mehra), a border patrolman (Pedro Fonseca), an Ajo snowbird (Marian Kimball Eichinger), the migrants (Dana Buchwald, Erin Drummond, Zeb Henderson Shreve, John Zeiler) and a girl (Citlalitl De Leon) left alone in the desert by coyotes.
Then there’s the Sonoran Desert. The landscape — littered with plastic bags, empty water bottles, bodies and Jeep tracks — in which these dramas take place, the desert is also a living, breathing, suffering character in “Border Crossing” portrayed by a group of performers (Herwig, Paulino Brener, Katie Kaufmann, Taous Khazem, Kym Longh and David P. Schneider). With a simple yet startlingly effective movement vocabulary, the performers manifest the desert as a dying puma, a scorpion poised to strike and a dessicating wind. Giving the landscape a role in the production, Ilse said, was “a way for the desert to come forth with its own experience.”
To show “the real complexity of the situation,” Ilse explained, the primary collaborators — including Anishinaabe playwright Marcie Rendon and composer Ben Siems — traveled to Ajo on a $6,000 Minnesota State Arts Board Grant to research “immigration at the border since NAFTA created a lot of upheaval in Mexico and the U.S. government has been closing down the borders more securely after 9/11. People are being funneled into remote desolate areas and they’re dying in the desert.”

Crosses in Arizona mark the graves of Mexicans who died trying to reach America.
Photo by Paul Herwig
Crosses in Arizona mark the graves of Mexicans who died trying to reach America.

The Off Leash group talked with aid organizations in Tucson and the residents of Ajo. They walked the new border fence (“It really is like the Berlin Wall,” Ilse said). They visited the Native American reservations, questioned park rangers and discussed the immigration situation with the group Human Borders, “a faith-based organization that puts out water for people. The only people we didn’t talk to were the Minutemen; they were just too frightening and extreme for us,” Ilse said.
“Everyone has an opinion and a viewpoint. We tried to encapsulate all of that in ‘Border Crossing.’ We can’t help but take a stand, but we didn’t want to make a political show that tells the audience what to think.”
Finding a stage for the political
Meanwhile, other Minneapolis choreographers are finding a place for the political in their work, some with mixed results. In mid-March, Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater premiered a new work, “Ways to Be Hold,” inspired in part by “the allure of comfort and the potential for public disengagement” surrounding video of Iraqi militants beheading U.S.-hired Iraqi security guards, Pimsler said.
Using warm, roomy coats as a metaphor for false security and human indifference, the piece conveyed the perils of such disengagement — not only to humanity at large, but to the spiritual life of the individual — through the riveting monologue of spoken-word artist Tiyo Siyolo while he was surrounded by an almost angry band of angelic dancers. Equally effective but in a wholly physical way was Pimsler’s 1984 antiwar work “Sentry,” (which was also on the program) in which the performers hurl themselves on the floor — limbs flying — with a frightening physicality.
“I gotta say, is there a place in dance to be political, absolutely,” Pimsler said prior to the performance. “There’s a truth in physicality, in movement, in gesture that cuts through all the verbiage. If the choreographer is clear, you can see a truth about a political statement in a movement, which an entire book might need to get through and still not reach that essence. So choreography is really quite suited for that.”
Shapiro piece gains new relevance
A couple of weeks later, Shapiro and Smith Dance remounted Danial Shapiro’s 1996 “What Dark/Falling Into Light.” Inspired by the Holocaust, but currently relevant given recent genocide in Eastern Europe and Africa, the work relied not on metaphor, but on the powerful resonance and terrible beauty of the abstract human body to convey its harrowing, punishing reminder.
Now, the works that failed. Two weeks ago, James Sewell Ballet premiered the disastrous “Social Movements.” The four-part work presented a listless, literal restaging of peace activist Norman Morrison’s self-immolation in front of the Pentagon in 1965 (complete with baby doll, gasoline can and lit match); a buffoonish take on environmental disaster featuring billowy costumes stuffed with water bottles and paper; a sentimental, swooning look at gay marriage; and a rather nice section on refugees and displacement in which one group of dancers fenced in and pushed away another group.
Finally, “When We Look,” an artistic collaboration led by Margo Abdo O’Dell about women and war around the globe. Performed with power and commitment, although often at an amateur level, the interdisciplinary work was relentlessly didactic.
“It takes a lot of work to go into deep questions of a political nature and constantly ask, ‘What am I trying to say?’ ” Ilse said. “We aren’t interested in anything that’s purely experimental for the sake of commenting on the art itself. On the other hand, it’s really hard to not be didactic. What we enjoy doing, and do best, is focusing on the humanity in everyone. We like to go very deep into the human characters, to make the audience laugh and cry at emotions and events that are recognizable. We hope that by focusing on that we won’t be didactic.”
“For us, our work is about finding out how to give audiences the pleasure of discovering something on their own, as opposed to telling them what to think. It’s easy to tell people what to think. As an artistic, it takes more work to find out how to make the audience part of that discovery. And let them decide which side of the issue they’re on.”
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities dance critic.

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