Wednesday, April 28, 2010
original on SFGate 2/29/2010
photo by Russell Yip / San Francisco Chronicle
Dancers Breton Tyner-Bryan (back) and Kelly Kemp of Deborah Slater Dance Theater
??The title of Deborah Slater's new world premiere, "Men Think They Are Better Than Grass," may have the sort of decidedly comedic tone that'll prompt a few snickers and wry allusions, but the Bay Area choreographer says the ideas behind the work aren't as knee-slapping when placed in context.
"I wanted to do a piece about the environment after seeing a video of a polar bear struggling to find a place to land among melting ice floes that couldn't bear its weight," explains the Isadora Duncan Award winner, who's renowned for her intricate, epic multidisciplinary performances. "It was clear that the bear was going to drown, which prompted a gut response in me to create a piece about the environment."
After speaking with co-director Jayne Wenger, Slater decided that the writings of W.S. Merwin would provide a suitable textual backdrop for a new work based on the delicate interplay between people and the environment.
The performance - a large-scale collaboration that weaves the ecologically conscious poetry of Merwin (from which the title of the show was derived) into a rich melange of music, video and animation - is perfectly in keeping with Slater's exuberant collaborative oeuvre. It offers provocative interpretations of 18 Merwin poems, ranging from material he wrote in response to the Vietnam War to poetry from his deep ecology period. As dancers bring the work to life through solo and group movement, prominent Bay Area artists such as Anne Galjour, Sean San Jose and Brenda Wong Aoki read Merwin's poetry aloud.
The show spanned three years from concept to execution, and Slater and Wenger "explored many poets in the process of finding text to translate to the stage," Slater says. Because Slater and Wenger didn't want to merely present a prescriptive piece ("We wanted to take a poetic approach to a scientific project"), Merwin's stirring assessment of how human beings separate themselves from the natural world, to the detriment of all living things, resonated deeply.
"Merwin was a believer that anger is not a fruitful place to stop - you need to move forward into some sense of taking an active position," Slater says. Many of the vignettes in the show hinge upon the idea that humans are "the first species that will participate in our own extinction." For instance, the first segment of the show, "The Last One," tells a heartrending story about cutting down the last tree in the world.
Far from being a didactic piece, "Men Think They Are Better Than Grass" seeks to transform awareness by eliciting a "kinesthetic rather than intellectual response. We're not saying you have to go out and do something - but we hope that watching this will make people start viewing the world differently."