SOMETIMES an idea gets short-circuited for want of a word. The necessary word was something like "primitive," but primitive carries too much baggage. Its pejorative meanings - undeveloped and uncultured - are too persistent to allow the word to be neutral.
Yet without the word primitive, it was difficult to explain the uneasy feeling left by Judith Jamison's "Riverside," danced by the Alvin Ailey company last weekend at The Fox.
The dance uses a free physical vocabulary, clearly informed and influe nced by native African and African-American dance forms. It suggests a world distant from ours, a world not without troubles, but evidently more embracing and socially vital than ours. A strong utopian element runs through it, with the usual sense of lo nging for the past and controlled hope about the future. It depicts a world free of a particular kind of alienation, the alienation of dancer from expression. Jamison's dancers are spoken through, motion seems not so much to emerge from thought, planning and execution but rather something that pervades and animates the body. To borrow terms from anthropology, it seems an oral culture, not a written one. Communication is immediate, not meditated; it is not a world of messages but direct, almost tactile communication. We've seen this world before, seen it hundreds of times in different forms. It is the same world that Montaigne apostrophized in the 16th century, that crops up in 17th-century opera, 18th-century French ballet, 19th-century travel literature, and 20th-century fantasies of vacation spots, lives free of modern travail. It is a persistent world, but one that, over the course of centuries, the Western consciousness has trained itself to treat as fantasy. Not just because happy primitive worlds don't exist and probably never existed, but because its all too easy to do harm when depicting such places. They is rarely an end, almost always a means: A means toward criticizing something in our world, its laws, habits and constitution. Even if we celebrate a world of greater license and deeper social attachment, we are ultimately using that place for our own agenda. Edward Said has pointed this out (ad nauseum, alas) in his study of Orientalism. The Noble Turk who releases his Western captives may be noble, but he isn't a Turk. Real Turks aren't heard because we write through them, put our words in their mouths, use them to tell our own moral fables. The last thing we do is to listen to them and, even if we do take a moment to listen rather than speak, we hear through filters, we edit as we listen, underline, cut and contextualize for our own purposes. …