In the Powerhouse Arts District, a man stood writhing in a white-hot light. For a time, his shadow, cast on a large sheet, was all there was of him; then that sheet parted, and his body became visible. His movements were deft, precise, and motivated, but they still spoke of exhaustion and destabilization. His eyes, too, looked haunted, fixed on some exterior horizon he was unlikely to reach. Then, just as suddenly as he emerged from the shadowed depths of the black box theater, he stepped backward, and the sheets, carried by a pair of dancers, were pulled up high to swallow his head. It was an effective illusion. He looked like a rapidly deflating balloon.
This was one of many disappearing tricks conjured by the makers of “Raucus Caucus Tango” at Nimbus Arts Center (329 Warren St.), an hourlong show that premiered on Friday, March 11, and made its distress about the parlous state of American politics evident. Dancers were continually slipping away from the action. Important characters were removed, violently, from the story — sometimes in mid-platitude. The final scene of the piece featured a line of performers trudging precariously on a set of uneven crates; each, in turn, reached the end of the line, detached from the human chain, grabbed a crate and spun into the gloom. Even Etu, the sky deity created and portrayed by scriptwriter Rashad Wright, is invisible, unknown to the people whose lives he’s affecting, and powerless to stop them from making tragic mistakes.
Wright, a celebrated Jersey City poet, co-wrote the script to “Raucus Caucus Tango” with Alysia Souder of the Institute of Music in Elizabeth. Like many recent works thrown into the yawning breach of the contemporary political divide, it decries American disunity and the incendiary character of our elections. There’s a good deal of nostalgia for the early Obama era in the writing — not necessarily for President Obama himself, but for the things his candidacy stood for in the public imagination, including gentility, consensus, common sense, productive disruption and a nebulous sort of change.
Delilah, played gamely by dancer Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler, a Carteret native, is the show’s hopeful hero, an earnest, well-meaning, middle-way political neophyte who leads with her competence and simple, non-ideological compassion. Her struggles with power, once attained, are dramatized in the show’s sharpest choreographed sequences. The risk she’s running in an agonistic environment like politics are plain to the audience, even if they aren’t clear to Delilah herself. Etu, guardian-god, cautions us that now isn’t her time.
Well, then, whose time is it? That isn’t spelled out precisely in the script, but Pettiford-Chandler, choreographer and Nimbus artistic director Samuel Pott, and a troupe of eight Nimbus dancers hint, hard, through movement and pure attitude. The dancing is vigorous, muscular, and in a few notable scenes, mock-combative. Shoulders get squared and sometimes hunched, ground gets stood until it can’t be held anymore, feet fall firmly, bodies are jerked by invisible wires. The message is clear: this is a season for pugilists. We’re spoiling for a fight, getting too close, stepping over boundaries and breaking formations. The looks on the faces of the dancers reflect our own. Nobody is enjoying the upheaval.
The feeling of unsettlement is reinforced by the score. Latin Grammy-winner Pedro Giraudo has contributed an ambitious set of energetic, violin-drenched nuevo tango compositions that occasionally suggest Astor Piazzola blowing off steam after a fistfight with a neighbor. Sometimes the music dances on the precipice of chaos, sometimes it’s downright abrasive, and sometimes Giraudo bangs together his classical, South American, and African influences as if he’s trying to dislodge something. This isn’t the lover’s tango you might encounter in a theater class, and Pott and his dancers respond with choreography that alludes to modern influences as much as it does to Latin American tradition. Delilah’s best scenes, danced energetically with the rest of the Nimbus crew, draw connections between tango, hip-hop, and the kind of choreography a pop fan might see in an Amber Mark or Solange video — and remind us, forcefully, that it all derives from Africa.
The union between the script and the choreography isn’t always as seamless. Pettiford-Chandler is far more comfortable in motion than she is when she’s standing still and reciting lines. Rashad Wright acquits himself well when he’s asked to move onstage, but his oration is not always in sync with the dancers. When his storytelling gets dense, the whirlwind of activity around him can make the through-line tough to follow. He’s at his best when he sets aside the quasi-divine persona and plays Rashad Wright, people’s poet, as he does in a deftly written mid-show standalone sequence devoted to the victims of state violence. (Notably, most of the Nimbus dancers sit still for this.)
Wright’s passion for justice is endearing, and maybe even righteous. Yet the step from the condemnation of police killings to an actual political message is a doozy. After watching this intense, idea-packed, surprisingly word-heavy hour of movement theater, I can’t say I know what Wright’s or Souder’s prescription is. Their distaste for aggression and governtainment is evident, as is their awareness that a Delilah-like leader doesn’t exactly fit the moment. Their vision of a society divided into “haves” and “have nots” isn’t too salient to the current predicament in America, a wealthy nation in which everybody, no matter how well-off, seems to be nursing a vicious grievance. A solicitation to the audience to “stand up” and “be the change” feels pat, and untrue to the pain of erasure and dead-end confusion that every step of the dancing radiates. And what if the change we want is just fiercer fighting?
It’s telling that the weakest part of the show is the scene that indulges in a violent fantasy: a version of a Super Tuesday primary that degenerates into a brawl. Wright begins the segment as a quick-talking anchorman and ends it in the guise of a referee who has swallowed the whistle, as his character (still Etu?) is swept up in the thrill of combat and scandal. This kind of satire — an election reimagined as a glorified wrestling match — has been done to death, and it’s never too insightful when it is done. The zany tone of the battle, which culminates with a Lucha Libre-masked El Chapo and a strangely standoffish Jesus Christ, does not correspond to the tone of American politics, which has not been zany, or fun, or even watchable, at any point in my lifetime.
The script is rescued by the dancers, who remain self-possessed even when they’re asked to be scenery in motion. It’s a testament to the discipline of the members of the Nimbus crew that they hit their marks when they’re asked to simulate a donnybrook. They’re all enjoyable to watch, but particular commendation goes to Victoria Santaguida, who blithely chews up some scenery in the role of an Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez-like Democratic combatant.
Then there’s Mika Greene, who stuns, straight through the show, with simple gestures. As one of the “have nots,” she approaches a “have” in a beggar’s shawl; after making contact, she sets across the stage in a sudden, invigorating spin, enlivened by the interaction, and perhaps altered for good. Greene doesn’t have to tell us she’s transformed, because she burns like struck match. The meaning is left ambiguous, but that’s the point. American politics is nothing that can be summarized, or even approached, in sixty minutes. It contains too many contradictory impulses and unconscious motivations. It needs to be felt, and lived through, and, somehow, survived. Once we’ve felt it — really felt it — we’re not going to like it. Maybe this is indeed a time in history in which a dancer can do more for our understanding of where we’re headed than all the speakers on the nightly news.