Thoughts on confronting ‘the greatest challenge the performing arts in America have ever faced’

dance covid-19

PETER RICHTER

A dancer at the 2013 Your Move festival in Jersey City.

During the 1980s and 1990s, it was easy for a gay man like me to imagine dying. After I had visited AIDS patients in the hospital, the picture of my final days was clear. I would be emaciated, my eyes alternately bright with terror or dull with hopelessness, and my skin speckled with lesions.

Nearly 40 years later, I can’t recall how many times I died that way. The thousand deaths a coward is supposed to suffer turned out to be a low-ball estimate. I had grown up with nightmares induced by fall-out shelters and creepy electronic alarms (“This is a test of the emergency broadcast system … ”), and as I write these words today our arsenal of nuclear weapons remains the greatest threat to life on earth. Yet in the ’80s, AIDS quickly replaced The Bomb as the specter most likely to keep me wide-eyed with insomnia.

In those days, even casual encounters laid traps for a mind conditioned to expect the worst. A man would sit talking good-humoredly, looking muscular and confident, but I would observe drops of sweat beading his forehead, a curious phenomenon in an air-conditioned room. Sure enough, that man would disappear. Subsequently the onset of the flu combined with a mental tally of my indiscretions furnished my imagination with enough drama to finish me off.

Yet the AIDS crisis also produced heroes whose behavior kept wimps like me from sniveling. Some of those heroes were doctors and nurses, including folksy, old saw-bones who had treated diphtheria and whooping cough and were unimpressed by novelties.

DEMIAN ACQUAVELLA

Heroism was not confined to the medical community, however. Though tales of abandonment became notorious, many friends and family members tended faithfully to their loved ones. Nobody would have dreamed of keeping these humble caregivers from the bedsides of the dying. People admired their sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice themselves; hearing about it, even those who did not know the sick person felt grateful that in our evil age someone could still demonstrate such devotion. The good ones made us all stand a bit taller.

And the dancers! If a statue is ever erected to honor the bronze courage of those days, it should depict Bill T. Jones carrying Demian Acquavella on stage in “D-Man in the Waters,” when Acquavella had become too sick to walk. I did not witness that particular act of love and compassion, which became legendary and contributed to the superhero aura of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. As an example of simple defiance, however, this event was not unique.

The “athletes of God,” as Martha Graham styled them, were trained to lives of endurance and resisted death ferociously. I remember Jeff Wadlington giving radiant performances in the cheerful, and then suddenly poignant “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” number that choreographer Paul Taylor created for him in Company B. The solo is relentless, as if Taylor hoped that like a tarantella it could sweat out the poison.

JEFF WADLINGTON

Wadlington danced it like a champion, seeming to draw energy on credit from all the years due to him, which he would never see. He died three years later, at 29.

And then there was Rudolf Nureyev. Having thumbed his nose at the overweening apparatus of Soviet tyranny, he wasn’t about to surrender to AIDS without a fight. He danced as long as his body held out. Then he took up conducting, and staged La Bayadère for the Paris Opéra — his final gift of beauty to the world.

Now I can’t help wondering what those dead men, and other stalwarts like them, would think of our response to COVID-19. The question is unanswerable, of course. Yet we should be able to say what we ourselves think of the current situation, assuming we are still allowed to think and share ideas. Those of us who survived the 1980s will be liable to make comparisons, and no one should be surprised if some gay men are tempted by schadenfreude. We can’t help but recall that once AIDS became established as a disease of the marginalized, the sensational headlines vanished and American society greeted the death toll with silence and a collective yawn. Now just look at the general panic!

The COVID-19 outbreak has been with us only a few months, and at this early stage, the disease remains mysterious. Controversy shrouds its origins, effects and potential for treatment. To our greater misfortune, COVID-19 arrived in the midst of a political firestorm — a moment of extreme polarization and rancor. Did it have to be an election year?

Not only that, the disease follows on the heels of two decades of fear-mongering and propaganda related to the still unresolved “war on terror,” for which no one in government or the media has been held accountable. Even more recently, our political establishment doubled down by attempting to rekindle the Russophobia of the 1950s, although a Cold War without the dread of atomic hellfire is pretty poor stuff. Can anyone explain why thoughts of a nuclear holocaust no longer inspire panic? Is that good for our health?

As desperate as things sometimes seemed in the 1980s, it would have been impossible, then, for anyone to imagine either the confusion that prevails in 2020 or the invasive technology that now threatens to strip away our privacy and autonomy. Mistrust is endemic, social bonds are fraying, and as statues topple not just our nation but our entire civilization appears to teeter. In short, COVID-19 has struck a society already battered and weakened.

Given these circumstances, it is natural for our artistic leaders to display uncertainty. Yet the window for cautious reflection will not remain open long. AIDS decimated the arts community over many years. The current crisis — triggered by COVID-19 but aggravated by our extraordinary response to it — has the potential to wreak greater devastation in a much shorter time.

It doesn’t seem to matter that COVID-19 is far less lethal than AIDS, and less dangerous than The Bomb by infinite orders of magnitude. Hysteria reigns, and the prohibitions against social gatherings and the closure of public spaces represent the greatest challenge the performing arts in America have ever faced. The theaters are closed at precisely the moment when we most need the empathy, the wisdom and the sense of our shared humanity that the arts supply. Surely our presenters are fully engaged in seeking to design environments that will be safe both for artists and the public. Yet questions of the utmost urgency are clamoring for answers.

First among these: Is it safe for us to treat COVID-19 as if it were an isolated problem, without considering the political landscape that surrounds it? We readily invoke the lessons of history when throwing darts for partisan satisfaction, but do we take those lessons seriously? Can we dismiss the possibility that events in our country could take an even more sinister and authoritarian turn? Should we be more afraid of a passing virus or of the lasting consequences of unchecked power?

Here are three more questions specific to arts lovers: Has anyone dared to speculate what the dance scene might look like if our theaters remain closed for a year? In a time of ever-increasing social need, can anyone reasonably expect patrons to support the arts if presenters and the artists themselves lack the conviction that their work must be performed? Will life still be worth living if our culture is dead, and our freedom gone?

To forestall the very worst outcome, I would argue, we will need to strike a balance between the risk to our persons and the risk to our artistic community. And we will need to find that balance soon.

In the meantime, among the (few) virtues of quarantine are the opportunities to expand one’s perspective by reading, and to become reacquainted with favorite authors who may offer insight into our predicament. Evidently the man of the hour is George Orwell, who clearly understood the threat of all-encompassing social control. He was also a critic, with words of advice for his fellow artists.

In a 1948 essay titled “Writers and Leviathan,” Orwell addressed the difficulty of being an artist in a “political age” whose demands make it impossible to divorce the world and devote oneself to pure aesthetics. In such an age, Orwell declared that the artist has a responsibility to society, because the kind of government we have depends in part upon “the prevailing intellectual atmosphere,” and upon the willingness of writers and artists “to keep the spirit of Liberalism alive.”

Despite this admonition, however, Orwell goes on to warn that artists should steer clear of political parties and of the orthodoxies that we now call “political correctness,” since group thinking inevitably backfires, forcing one to ignore contradictions and hindering the artist’s search for truth. For Orwell, the artist who cannot help but participate in political life must still maintain a position as an outsider, free to observe, comment and disagree with any authority or belief. “Group loyalties are necessary, and yet they are poisonous to literature, so long as literature is the product of individuals,” he writes. Decide for yourselves whether and how much this maxim applies to the mavericks of modern dance.

This is also a good time to recall Orwell’s most famous work, the novel “1984,” in which propaganda blares from screens everywhere and the State’s ultimate victory over the protagonist, Winston Smith, is achieved by awakening panic. Smith succumbs to his own particular “worst thing in the world” when the State exploits his fear of rats, thus breaking him in a way that physical torture could not. Smith does not die, but what is left of him after this ordeal scarcely seems worth saving. Imagine, now, this psychological technique applied on a grander scale, until a whole society has been conditioned by fear and is ready to make any sacrifice to avoid the dreadful thing that haunts it.

Perhaps, by now, I should have achieved the equanimity, or resignation, expected of graybeards. The terrors of my youth have been largely put to rest. Yet here we are in 2020, and another plague has come along, not one requiring intimate contact, like AIDS, but one that breathes contagion indiscriminately on subway poles, alpha-numeric pads and delivery pizza, and threatens to waft toxic aerosols in my direction. Once more I find myself in a vulnerable group, this time because of my age, and it’s scaring me all over again.

This plague, too, is in conflict with my deepest desires. It turns out that friendship is as important as sex and that electronic connections are no substitute for the messy, in-person kind. Electronic connections are also no substitute for shared experiences like dance classes and performances, which awaken our too-buried human consciousness.

Yes, I’m scared. But equipped with a plastic visor and hand sanitizer, I am also more than ready to return to the theater, lest I allow my fear to kill the art I love.

Robert Johnson writes about dance for NJArts.net and other outlets.

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