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
It is a persistent world, but one that, over the course of
centuries, the Western consciousness has trained itself to treat as
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