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Neil Greenberg’s vital signs are forever

For viewers who know his work, Neil Greenberg’s dances are immediately recognizable for their wit, their formalist rigor, and the sense they give off that they are about something real and will reward close, sustained attention. He shows the connection between moments, even if they are far apart in the dances; the details of the dance are always contributing toward that end.

New and old audiences will have the opportunity to practice that kind of active observation when Greenberg revives his 1994 “Not-About-AIDS Dance” with his company Dance By Neil Greenberg. The choreographer will also premiere a new quartet for men, his first such group work.

In the 19th century, poet and critic Charles Baudelaire suggested that a truly modern art must deal with the accidental, the provisional, and the contingent in the texture of our lives, that art must reflect that type of urban vitality. Greenberg danced as a member of the Merce Cunningham company for several years, so the accidental (read “chance”) and the provisional (read “events”) are not surprising components of his own dance-making aesthetic.

But it is the contingent element that lends a special quality to Greenberg’s art. His version of dance formalism deals in choreographic terms with the multiple contingencies that we ignore as we lead our daily lives, sometimes to our regret—all those social and existential connections that, once disturbed, can lead to fresh perception or major upset.

The tangential connections between things contribute to the vital sense that we are alive even though we consign them to the periphery of our conscious thought. An artist like Greenberg returns them to our attention through his control of the ground plan of his dances. All those small details in the dance movement itself, held so artfully apart, can count for something, suggest new connections, contribute to the overall patterning of the dance action, and, in the end, evoke something almost like the drumbeats of fate.

How does Greenberg make such promptings visible? One could answer glibly this is his art’s great secret; but some things are clear from interviews he has given over the years. Greenberg begins his process of invention by videotaping his own dance movement in a studio. He then inspects the video for source material. I used to think this was a formalist inquiry, even at this stage of the game, the structuring eye searching for markers, matrices, motifs. But I now think Greenberg must be looking for some living evidence—some vivid clue—that can hint at a larger necessary form. No wonder he has recently incorporated video imageries directly into his dances. In the end is the beginning of his work.

And no wonder his extraordinary “Not-About-AIDS Dance” has such power over its audiences. In this work—planned as a dance that would incorporate autobiographical matter from the performers—Greenberg juxtaposes the textures of vital contingencies with the fact of mortal disease, art’s infinitude contradicted by life’s over-determination. During the year this dance was made, Greenberg lost nine friends to the disease, as well as his brother Jon, a well-known and respected AIDS activist. As a projected supertitle in “Not-About-AIDS Dance” comments, one of the original dancers also lost her mother to a non-AIDS related death during the period. There is a unique sense in which only a choreographic idiom as gently vitalistic as Greenberg’s could have encountered a human devastation like the AIDS plague and found something poised and profound to say. (Greenberg himself had tested HIV-positive and had been living with the disease and its treatment; of course, he does so still.)

I can think of one other work of art made in my lifetime that compares with this dance—Alain Renais’ 1955 documentary “Night and Fog” (“Nuit et Brouillard”) on the Nazi death camps. That movie attains its specialized vantage through the use of an ironic commentary by Jean Cayrol. Irony is a modern tool for sensitive and impossible discourse. The irony in “Night and Fog” takes various forms and objects, but one result is that it prevents the natural sentiment evoked by such a subject from overwhelming its audience. It has been one of the great projects of modern art, this incorporation of difficult and problematic themes into the empire of artistic statement. Think of Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Brecht-Weil’s “Mahagonny,” Mapplethorpe’s photography.

How does Greenberg evoke the misery and loss of the AIDS epidemic without indulging sentimentality? I think it is the very contrast between the liveliness of his dance idiom and the intrusiveness of the autobiographical data—marmoreal, prognostic, final—that creates emotions beyond the overpowering ones we might expect. A mental space opens up, and in that new place for consideration and memorial, another kind of response becomes possible. It’s a moonlit space, alabaster vaults meant for special purposes perhaps, but what part of our lives, when they are truly lived, is not special and even purposeful? That is the achievement of Greenberg’s art—to make works that are profoundly personal but allow a public participation in evoked experiences and suggested meanings.

“Not-About-AIDS Dance” has been followed by a series of extraordinary works from Greenberg including “The Disco Project” (1995), “Sequel” (2000), “Construction with Varied Materials” (2001), and two dances incorporating video—“Two” (2003) and “Partial View” (2005). I would especially like to see “The Disco Project” revived. It contains a performance by Greenberg himself that can only be described as Baudelairean.

Greenberg reminds me of great Oriental masters of Kabuki and Noh theater when he takes the stage to dance in one of his own works. The immersion of the performer in his fantasy is complete and Greenberg’s ability to deliver that fantasy to his audience is masterly. He is the calm, articulate center of “Not-About-AIDS-Dance.” Audiences for the revival of this work of art will find that the game Greenberg plays is not only for the long term—it’s for keeps.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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