Zaccho Dance Theatre
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
April 15–17, 2011
Reviewed by Rita Felciano
Joanna Haigood's The Monkey and the Devil. Photo by Joseph Seif, Courtesy Zaccho.
The Monkey and the Devil, a quartet for two couples, one Caucasian and one African American, is easily Joanna Haigood's most rigorously formal work. It is also devastating in the way it lays bare the festering wounds of racism. Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho, first showed the piece at her company’s studio two years ago. Since then, she has added hold-no-punches text that raises the temperature without diminishing the choreography’s potency.
A collaboration with visual artist Charles Trapolin, Monkey—the title refers to racial slurs—is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s saying, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Trapolin built two halves of a house, its interior painted off-white and pale brown. The structures, each supported on a pivot, creaked and groaned in response to the shifts of human bodies inside them. The buildings also could be spun like tops with force applied from the outside. Some of the work’s most dramatic episodes concerned the couples’ desperate attempts to stabilize the ground under their feet. Falling, clinging, shoving, and tumbling, they looked as if caught in an earthquake. The audience freely moved around the periphery, imposing its own perspective on these emblems of long-held animosities.
Choreographically, Haigood suggested the ritual and violence of a boxing arena, with a bell periodically calling for a breather. There would be no winners; sparring partners remained on equal footing. Each kick, each glare, each raised fist and body smashed against a wall was the mirror image of the neighbor’s across a tiny alley. The women raised their fists identically; shouted the same “I am a woman” at each other. Both huddled in their corners, shaking with rage and sputtering racial insults as if to stoke their anger. They also submitted simultaneously to being measured for the slave market, and they put their shoulders against the neighbor’s house to send it into a whirling hurricane. The men in the meantime looked on, climbed the walls and wearily circulated around the “enemy.”
Halfway through the one-hour work, Haigood reversed gears, and the men re-enacted the women’s roles, starting with the mantra “I am a man.” They vented their fury in a fistfight and a long diatribe about the failures of the other race. It was interesting to observe that the primarily Caucasian audience stood closer to the African American man, listening to him more attentively. Did they feel they needed to hear what he had to say? Or would it have been too uncomfortable to listen to, perhaps, hidden prejudices inside themselves?
Punctuating the pristinely coordinated physical confrontations, during which the dancers at times often looked programmed, were periods of stasis, of blank stares and a fatigue grounded in hopelessness. For these people—the excellent Sean Grimm, Jodi Lomask, Raissa Simpson, and Matthew Wickett—there was no exit; they were condemned to the hell of the Other.