Facing an impending wave of cultural tributes to 9/11, I think back on the days following the attack. The entire city reeked of that acrid burning smell that we suspected was the entire contents of the Twin Towers, people included, that would last for months. But New York being New York, life went on, if not with more urgency than before the attack. I went ahead and attended an interpretation by Salvador Távora of Carmen at City Center the next night, where the smoky haze that pervaded the auditorium remains, sadly, the most prominent memory I have of that show, other than how brave the company was merely to go on. (They did not charge for tickets, amazingly.) In the days following, I saw Big Dance Theater’s Shunkin at The Kitchen, and by then the undying smoke smell had yielded somewhat to the powerful imagery and skilled alchemy of the company’s mixed media productions.
In the months that followed, the cultural calendar that had been fixed in place months or years before marched on inexorably, but the content had suddently been charged with monumental purpose. Had we lost entirely our sense of humor or irony? Could we focus on lighter topics without seeming brusque? Even the random fluttering paper or flailing limb had taken on gut-wrenching allusions.
Of the top modern dance choreographers’ creations, I saw some truly awful stuff that showed the state of confusion and anger churned up by 9/11. I also saw some masterworks that proved their creators’ genius and ability to work under duress. Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire (video clip) was not performed until the following June, but he normally premieres just two dances a year, and this had been created in 9/11’s wake and performed prior to that. The music —Bach’s Opus 116—dictates a requisite monumentality that seems nearly overbearing at first, but the strong tableau the dancers form as the curtain rises matches that sheer brutal power. It’s one of Taylor’s abstract dances, its classical undertones and bracing symmetry and speed satisfying of their own merit. Yet there are a few moments that transcended abstraction—when Michael Trusnovec plucked Lisa Viola (and later Annmaria Mazzini, pictured) out of a pile of bodies, and later when she leapt into his waiting arms—that defined why we need art. No words were necessary, and these brief, simple phrases condensed every emotion that had simmered turbulently in our souls since 9/11. (BTW, PTDC will perform at a Joyce Theater-presented 9/11 tribute, but the work will be Brandenburgs.)
Mark Morris’s V premiered just a month after 9/11, but it wasn’t seen in New York until March of 2002, when it was at BAM. There was a lack of giddiness that sometimes traces through Morris’ abstract work, and there was a quality to the piece that came across as the application of serious craftsmanship in the face of chaos, as if the answer to such horror was simply good work. Certain motifs implied a vulnerability (or read that way), and its admirable structure and polished gem brilliance distinguished it among audiences and critics. These two standout dances will, unfortunately, be forever tied to 9/11, but then again, so will those of us who lived through it and derived from these works some reassurance of man’s potential gifts.