TBA Festival: Dayna Hanson’s Gloria’s Cause
It’s Monday early afternoon, and I’m finally enjoying a lull in the hectic pace of meetings and show-going that’s been my life since I flew into Portland from New York on Friday for the first weekend of shows at the 2010 Time-Based Art Festival. I’m supposed to be offering wrap-ups here, so I suppose I should get started.
The work that’s probably generating the most discussion (or at least debate) thus far is Seattle choreographer Dayna Hanson‘s (formerly of 33 Fainting Spells) new dance-theatre piece Gloria’s Cause. Co-commissioned by TBA along with Under the Radar and On the Boards in Seattle (where it has its official world premiere in December), Gloria’s Cause has divided the writers covering the festival. One writer for the Portland Mercury described it as, “This is one of the TBA shows that I’m going to tell friends to go see. When they ask me: ‘what’s good?’, ‘what is worth spending some cash on?’ I’ll point them to this,” while another writer for the same paper reported that after seeing it, she texted a friend: “I’m glad you decided not to come—you would have HATED that.”
Claudia La Rocco, in town covering TBA for Portland Monthly magazine, was even harsher, comparing it exceedingly unfavorably to the Wooster Group’s There is Still Time…Brother, writing: “I found what was happening on stage in “Gloria’s Cause” far more dispiriting, and I wondered what it was like for [Elizabeth] LeCompte to watch so many of the theatrical strategies she developed with the Wooster Group being rehashed in such tired fashion in this hot mess of a production, which took on sweeping American historical and political themes and did very little with them. It was classic kitchen-sink art: throw everything up and see what sticks. Put quotation marks around everything that doesn’t.”
For my part, I thought that Gloria’s Cause was actually quite strong, and, what’s more, relevant, which is more than can be said for many of the works on hand. Hanson is trying to respond to the confusion (or, as she put it to me, the “psychic dissonance”) of the current American moment, in which, despite crises of a near existential nature, Americans have remained firmly rooted in pre-crisis modes of normalcy, to the point that currently, beyond the narrow world of contemporary performance, a reactionary right has risen up to oppose the government responding to the crises (military, economic) at all. It’s an absurd and frankly frightening historical juncture, and one that should be inspiring more artists to respond to it.
What I thought of while watching Gloria’s Cause was the T.E.A.M.’s Mission Drift, which I caught (also in a workshop performance) at the Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory Festival this summer, and which stands out in my mind as the best new work I’ve seen since coming to New York in late spring. Whereas the T.E.A.M. tackles the mythology of westward expansion, Hanson tackles the mythology of the American Revolution and the founding of the country, particularly with reference to its iconography. Gloria’s Cause is highly imagistic, and though there’s enough text, music, and non-dance performance in it to qualify it as theatre rather than dance, when seen from this perspective, it starts to make sense as a choreographic work. The movement and music often serve to counterpoint or deconstruct the images being referenced onstage, as Hanson contrasts the master narrative of America’s founding with true stories of the marginalized and victimized, particularly through the stories of two historical colonial women, one of whom fought in the Revolution as a man and the other of whom chose to remain with her Native American kidnappers, essentially “going native” rather than returning to the society that claimed her.
What Hanson’s trying to do with all this is to locate the aforementioned psychic dissonance in the founding of the country itself, to define it not in terms of a historical anomaly of the present moment but in fact as a core component of what it is to be American. That’s why Gloria’s Cause is not merely a counter-narrative of the nation’s history (like Howard Zinn’s histories): as a representation of the American psyche, Gloria’s Cause has to encompass both the myth and its dissent. All of which is rather is dry and theoretical, but as a performance it succeeds because Hanson evinces a deep sympathy for the victims of the American Project set in motion under the false pretenses of revolutionary liberation, which, however important the accomplishment itself, was primarily a cause of and a benefit to an elite, paid for, then as now, with the sacrifice and blood of the larger society.
There were certainly some moments the effectiveness of which I questioned. When dancer Wade Madsen performs as an animatronic POTUS from Disney’s Hall of Presidents, the work slips from being a thoughtful burlesque to a simple satire whose point is too blunt to miss. And yes, there are pacing issues as well as other kinks to work out (the same was true of Mission Drift), but on the whole, Gloria’s Cause is extremely promising and certainly not boring to watch. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it represents a major new formal development, but it’s clearly a work focused on its content rather than its form, and insofar as that’s the case, Gloria’s Cause is a success.