Saturday, June 11, 2016

Spoleto has an identity crisis with Golem, Opposing Forces

Who Are You?

Posted by Chris Haire on Sat, Jun 11, 2016 at 3:41 PM

During the final week of Spoleto, the arts festival found itself in a bit of quandary. With the bulk of the fest behind it, and after exploring the black experience for days on end, Spoleto was having an identity crisis.

Now mind you, it wasn't your typical identity crisis. If you can attach sentiences to something like an arts festival, Spoleto knows exactly who and what it is: a world-class celebration of dance, theater, jazz, classical music, and opera.

This identity crisis was of a different sort entirely, for the question of identity was very much at the heart of this week's offerings, from Gate Theater's production of The Importance of Being Earnest and its well-crafted stage to A Gambler's Guide to Dying in which writer/actor Gary McNair tries to present an honest portrait of a larger-than-life man but only further adds to the myth-making.

No other performance tackled the subject of identity with more introspective gusto than choreographer Amy O'Neal's breakdancing think piece Opposing Forces. With five dancers of different ethnic backgrounds under her charge, O'Neal crafted a clever, thrilling, and occasionally too plodding examination of masculinity and femininity, a feat she somehow managed to do using only male dancers.

While the deejay WD4D provided the musical backdrop and a series of interviews directly addressed the central subject of gender stereotypes and sexual identity, Opposing Forces asked the audience to question their beliefs via a rather novel approach: she took old-school B-Boys, breakdancers if you will, and had them dance in a manner that we would consider more feminine. Admittedly, it was strange to see a burly B-Boy dance with all the tender and fragile grace of a ballerina, but the movement was still just as beautiful.

And therein lies O'Neal's central conceit: there is no masculine style of dancing and no feminine style of dancing. It is all just dancing and it is all just an expression of how a specific individual feels.

Some might talk of individuals being on a gender-identity spectrum, and that is all well and good. (We can dismiss the fascists who believe that gender identity is fixed from birth, and believe you me, this applies to both the straight and LGBT communities.) However, O'Neal suggests the possibility that the spectrum itself is a self-imposed prison as much as traditional male-female gender roles. 

Sadly, and at least judging by the opening night performance, far too few Spoletians saw this bold, thought-provoking performance. Perhaps those who attended the show hyped it to their friends, families, and potential ticket-holders and the remaining performances of Opposing Forces was packed, I don't know. I certainly hope that was the case. But to be quite honest with you, the hip-hop elements of O'Neal's show may not have appealed to a sizable segment of the Spoleto audience. Regardless, I would very much like to see the festival continue to publicly debate whether or not breakdancing is a part of its identity. I think it very much is, especially if the same care is put into the work as O'Neal and her dancers put into theirs. 

Questions about identity, specifically questions about the nature of individualism, are of chief concern in the theatrical troupe 1927's Golem, a Frankensteinian tale about the dangers of technology-driven consumerism. (And yes, I know that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein owes a tremendous debt to the Jewish mythology of the golem. In this case, "Frankensteinian" is simply a more effective shorthand.) 

Much like 1927's previous Spoleto offerings, The Animals and Children Took to the Streets and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Golem combined live music and acting with animation to a delirious and delightful affect.

As usual, the mechanics behind the troupe's latest production was a marvel to behold. But the central conceit of the work — namely, that smart phones and Amazon.com were turning us into mindless consumers — was one that would have seemed far more biting had it been released at the turn of the millennium during the glory days of Adbusters and with the cinematic release of Fight Club. Golem's critique was far too simple, ignoring the ways that the iPhone, the iPad, and their imitators have fundamentally changed society. 

Yes, there are cookies that track your every purchase and search, and they're being used to curate a list of products to sell to you that are unique to you, but few view that application of technology as being particularly intrusive or threatening. After all, we still have to order the products they're selling. We don't just buy everything that is thrown in our faces. 

As fascinating and fun and funny as Golem was — it was certainly worthy of applause and praise — I wished 1927 had really pushed their explorations even further, addressing the impact of social media, constant political propaganda, and a never-ending supply of free porn has on the lives on smart phone and tablet owners. The internet has put our every desire, or at least some facsimile thereof, in our very hands, and it all can be had with a simple tap of a button.

The internet doesn't dictate to us who we are and what we do. It amplifies who we are and what we do. It unlocks the doors that once prevented us from exploring whatever subject we wanted, it destroys societal taboos, it frees us to say and do whatever we like, and it does so to both good and evil ends. Our technology is a blessing and a curse. It perverts and it empowers. But in the end, there is no question what it has revealed to us, both collectively and individually. It has shown us our true selves. 


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