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Wise Bird 

Men may want to take cover when Krissy Keefer, feminist survivor, dances

Wednesday, Jan 16 2002
In the grim arts climate of the last three decades, the politically committed and the lifelong rebels have best withstood the onslaught of tough times. For artists on the margins, fervent political belief has kept many of them going, even as money started running out in the '80s. Choreographer Krissy Keefer, a founder of the groundbreaking feminist dance collective Wallflower Order and its offspring, the Dance Brigade, is one of the survivors. With a style that encompasses theater, ritual, ballet, protest chants, and modern dance, Keefer seems infuriatingly polemical to some, a feminist visionary and pioneer to others. Her long-running Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, created with co-director Nina Fichter and first staged in 1986, was blatantly doctrinaire, attacking everything from capitalism to the oppression of hired help. But no other Nutcracker was as original: It had as its theme the war in El Salvador, with the child Marie recast as Clara, the maid, transformed into a freedom fighter rather than a budding lover.

The dance broke ground in other ways as well. It satirized the traditional ballet's opening party scene by making it a drunken, decadent bash critical of bourgeois society long before Mark Morris claimed the drunken party as his own. Instead of proffering saccharine divertissement, it told earnest tales of environmental degradation, with dancers on bungee cords and trapezes, while lampooning U.S. foreign policy by replacing the traditional rats with sleazy CIA agents. Highly refined dance it wasn't, but its passion and political vision shaped the social concerns of many into broad-based theater.

In recent years, Keefer's work has developed a fevered theatrical poetry as it has grown less dogmatic and more prophetic. Last week she began previews of CaveWomen, the final part of an untitled apocalyptic feminist trilogy she launched in 1996. Part 1 she called Ballet of the Banshees, describing it as half spiritual, half political. Part 2 was the 1999 solo show Queen of Sheba, with Keefer embodying a Lily Tomlin-like cast of characters, from libidinous Sheba to the mad bag lady Lily to the biblical proto-feminist rebel Lilith.

CaveWomen conjures up a group of fabled female religious adepts known as yogini. More than a thousand years ago, according to Keefer and her source, archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, such women supposedly took up residence in caves of the Odiyanna region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which U.S. forces now comb in search of Osama bin Laden and his followers. There they honed their sorcery, including such abilities as walking on water, bringing back the dead, and shape-shifting from human to animal form at will. Keefer's message is clear: In a world in which most women still have little power or wealth, these ferocious females are a vision of command and control.

While Keefer conceived CaveWomen two years ago and had it largely set in place by last summer, the show has assumed a prescient quality since Sept. 11. Its opening words ring with eerie foreboding: "I am a woman whose heart has exploded, a woman who sees destruction, lady of alarm, ruin, despair -- a too wise bird with no good omen." Although the synchronicity disturbs Keefer, she chalks up her oracular ability not to clairvoyance but to understanding. "I know our culture," she explains, and everywhere she looks she sees a world out of kilter.

"There's the statistic that 500,000 girl children are sold into prostitution in India every year. I can hardly cope with that. So then I go, "It doesn't matter; I don't care.' I listen to the news and say, "Bring it on! Bring it on!' because I don't want to fight with Bush. I don't want to fight. I just want to start over. The cavewomen are about starting over. The characters are living in the caves, understanding the whole world but having none of the same material resources that we have."

Like many idealistic leftists, Keefer is deeply discouraged by the political outcome of the last 30 years. Not only has the better world envisioned in the '60s failed to materialize, but the inroads women and environmentalists made have, she believes, been eroded. For her, CaveWomen has become a fierce feminist response, simultaneously apocalyptic and utopian, to dangerously belligerent fundamentalists, from Bush to bin Laden.

"9/11 happened and my premonitions got confirmed. I really think we're completely destroying the environment to the point where life is pretty much over. We're not going to be able to organize our way out of it. That breaks my heart, especially as an activist. I had thought, "Oh, we'll just organize socialism; we'll just organize women's rights.'" Her pessimism comes out early in the dance, when, perched in a studio, performer Tina Banchero recounts the cataclysm that has befallen her. She tells us that she has gone to the city, where everything suddenly disappears beneath her; she slips into a crack in the floor, joining a world of underground demons in the paranoiac darkness. The space she describes could be the new catacombs of the World Trade Center or the caves of the yogini. The dancers then draw the audience into a second studio, where a nihilistic carnival and a sadistic interrogation take place onstage. Out of this vision of catastrophe Keefer finds opportunity: The performers finally lead the audience members into a third studio, and what were catacombs are now the mystics' caves. The furious women, dressed in lacy slips, alternately chant and rant, hold hands, and beat drums, filling the social and cultural vacuum with a new matriarchal order.

Here, the dance movements are fueled by equal parts ferocity and eros. Keefer and her five dancers (Karen Elliot, Lena Gatchalian, Sarah Bush, Tina Banchero, and Debby Kajiyama) perform fierce Wu Shu martial arts steps, spew blood-red paint, spread their legs in provocation and threat, and carry one another with balletic gentleness (assisted by choreographers Yannis Adoniou, Ling Mei Zhang, and Terry Sendgraf). They intone, "We eat and drink the blood of truth, we tear the flesh of lies." Men in the audience may want to take cover. The women onstage reclaim their libidos, but their sexuality has a carnivorous edge -- reclaiming the "primal feminine" apparently doesn't mean the end of fury. Fortunately, that fury isn't lethal; it's just so deeply felt and radically in-your-face that it gives a whole new meaning to the word "torrid." I think of it as Keefer's way of saying, "Mr. Helms, Mr. DeLay, and Mr. Ashcroft: Eat your hearts out."

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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