Los Angeles

Jacki Apple, Mary Jane Eisenberg, And Bruce Fowler

John Anson Ford Theater

Among the hundreds of collaborative spectacles supported over the last five years by the Inter-Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, a large number have been unfortunate alliances of artists who apparently cared little about the mechanics of collaboration, merely grafting their creations together, making expensive monsters out of mismatched parts. The Amazon, the Mekong, the Missouri, and the Nile, by Jacki Apple, Mary Jane Eisenberg, and Bruce Fowler, was more than the sum of its parts and should go down on record as a performance piece that proved the potential of interarts collaboration. Part of the “Dance Park” series in Los Angeles and sponsored by the Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance, the piece was conceived of and produced by the three collaborators, with recorded texts and music by Apple, recorded music by Fowler, and choreography by Eisenberg, danced by the Shale Company. Each medium supported and strengthened the others, and all three worked together to create a moving piece of work about man’s instinct for conquest.

Accounts of river expeditions on four continents formed the framework for Apple’s recorded narrative, which built a case against the deception and betrayal used by Western colonizers. Fowler’s startling score included a brass-ensemble “operetta,” contemporary jazz, traditional Cambodian music, and an environmental sound work. Eisenberg and the Shale dancers locked movement and meaning together. The dancers performed with consistent strength in a range of styles that included abstract interpretation of ideas as well as literal mime of the narrative.

Thematically, the tone was set during the introduction, in which the recorded text indicated that language, not military arms, is the weapon of conquest. Apple’s voice advised, “If you want to take over a territory, any territory, if you want to colonize it, or better still, convert it, all you really need to do is eliminate the language, erase it, eradicate it. Replace it with your own. After a while the people will begin to forget what they once knew, what they believed in. And soon they will begin to think like you do. Or at least act as if they do.”

In a sparkling torrent of specific details, the text catalogued the lies and broken promises of explorers, colonizers, and missionaries that aided the wreckage of cultures in Africa, Cambodia, and North and South America. The arrogance of 19th-century English imperialism was evinced in the “Nile” section, and the disintegration of American Indian cultures as an eventual result of the Lewis and Clark expedition after the Louisiana Purchase was portrayed in the “Missouri” section. Because the second section had no text, this information was only available in the program notes. Within this particular structure, the attempt to impart meaning through dance and music alone was unsuccessful.

The “Mekong” section was the centerpiece of the work. The narrative recalled the French expedition up the Mekong River from Cambodia to China in 1866, in which territory was claimed “for the merchants of Lyon and Bordeaux”; the text then compared this to the fall of the Cambodian government of Norodom Sihanouk during the Vietnam War, due to “CIA plots” and “economic coercion.” The environment of Phnom Penh, the villages, and the river were described in terms of the five senses. The tragic personal losses of individuals were called up poignantly but not sentimentally. Text, music, and dance were expertly woven together to evoke sympathy for the people of Cambodia.

This section flowed directly into the “Amazon,” in which a litany of justifications—“In the name of duty, in the name of honor, in the name of His Majesty, in the name of Our Lord”—were invoked to excuse the relentless charge down the river.

Most successful was the confluence of so many historical tributaries into one river of politically charged emotion. Most ’80s performance work is polyglot, calling upon or appropriating images from the widest possible variety of sources to convey a message. Multilevel communication is difficult, but it is the order of the day; its use in art is valid, but, like political content, it is often mishandled. Lewis Segal, of the Los Angeles Times, complained that this piece was “an example of the cultural imperialism [the artists] supposedly deplore: an attempt to co-opt epic events in the history of ancient peoples and repackage them as 15-minute vignettes.” Indeed, this was the risk the artists took, but it was their determined attention to collaboration and the wider perspective generated by this collaboration that melded these histories into a powerful warning for the future.

Linda Burnham