Resource Logo
New York Times

DANCE; A Chronicle Faces Death and Celebrates Life




 

NEIL GREENBERG'S newly completed trilogy, like a serial novel choreographically reimagined for the age of AIDS, chronicles four years in the life of his company, Dance by Neil Greenberg. A dancer goes to Australia. A baby is born. A choreographer falls in love. But what resonates most deeply in the work is a battering series of losses -- a brother, a mother, a father, an ex-lover, a litany of dear friends.

This "immortality project," as Mr. Greenberg has described it, delves into the dueling impulses of grief: to relent and struggle, to remember and forget, to hold on and let go. Both elegy and paean, it responds to the AIDS crisis not with bitterness or fatalism but with an intelligent, recalcitrant dose of camp.

The trilogy will be performed in its entirety for the first time, on two programs, Tuesday through Sunday, as part of the 92d Street Y Harkness Dance Project, held at Playhouse 91 on East 91st Street. The title of the final installment, "Part 3 (Luck)," makes a double-edged reference to Mr. Greenberg's own confrontation with mortality.

The story began in 1994 with "Not-About-AIDS-Dance," which later became the first part of the trilogy. In this work the choreographer informed his audience, via texts projected at the back of the stage, that not only had his brother recently died of AIDS but also that he himself was H.I.V. positive. In "The Disco Project" the following year, Mr. Greenberg revealed that he was still asymptomatic, mourning new losses and getting angry but determined to have some fun.

With "Part 3," itself divided into three sections, Mr. Greenberg decided to shape a trilogy. "Part 3 (My Fair Lady)" recalled his childhood memory of Audrey Hepburn and the first movie musical he saw, as a 5-year-old. "Part 3 (Judy Garland)" evoked another gay-world icon, this time an adult meditation on the tragic diva.

In "Part 3 (Luck)," Mr. Greenberg, 38, continues his story, with happier news. "I had to make a new piece, because I had to update the audience," he said. "In 'Not-About-AIDS-Dance,' I enacted my brother's death by showing what he looked like in a coma. By doing so, I implicitly asked the audience to imagine me dying of AIDS.

"Now I'm on these new drugs. My viral load is undetectable. I told my parents and the company, and I feel I have to tell the audience. If I've asked an audience to get involved with me, I have a responsibility not to just leave them dangling."

"Part 3 (Luck)" accelerates the trilogy's self-consciously presentational style. "There's no fourth wall," explained Mr. Greenberg. "We dancers know the audience is there and watching. And they know we know they're watching us."

The projected text, reprised from the first two parts of the trilogy, he added, provides the audience with a "door into the powers of the dancing," which, for all its baroque muscle, remains abstract. "I am putting the words in there in order to help the pure dance read more strongly, so that an audience not used to reading dance meanings can start to read them."

He first used the device in 1987 in "MacGuffin or How Meanings Get Lost," the breakthrough work that started his investigation into the nature of meaning in post-modern dance, a form largely defined as "movement for movement's sake." The text in "MacGuffin" resulted from his dissatisfaction with his previous dance, which he concluded had failed to communicate to its audience.

"I thought I was trying to say something, in my strident, very young way," Mr. Greenberg said. "But looking at it now, I was just trying to be known, to have my full self, including the parts I thought were unacceptable, be accepted. But I was only putting little clues in the dances, subtle things that only I could read."

The second breakthrough came with "Not-About-AIDS-Dance," when Mr. Greenberg began to reveal information about his real life and those of his four dancers. The work won a prestigious New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award.

As a former dancer with Merce Cunningham, whose choreography eschews personal meaning in favor of chance procedures, Mr. Greenberg had entered forbidden territory. Nevertheless, he explained, "It was the kind of change that most artists go through in their lives as they get more and more courage to present themselves."

Contrary to Mr. Cunningham's well-known esthetic position, Mr. Greenberg insists that Cunningham's dances are full of meaning, even if that meaning is unconscious. "An artist has the desire to be known," he said. "That is in Merce's work, but in great code. Now it's in my work, but in less and less code."

THE text for "Part 3 (Luck)" -- part memoir, part supertitle, part stage direction -- makes public the kind of information that is usually kept private. In deceptively transparent language, in a voice both vulnerable and cheeky, the choreographer comments on the dancing ("This material is from 'Not-About-AIDS-Dance' "), on the audience ("Does anyone know of a large one-bedroom in Manhattan for under $1,200?"), on the choreographic process ("We lost some rehearsal time"), on his own life ("I take the pills twice a day") and on the lives of his dancers ("Ellen is moving to L.A.").

As with the entire trilogy, "Part 3 (Luck)" is not limited by its brief appearance on stage. It reaches back in time, to the months when it was being made. And it extends outside the theater, into the lives of its performers. This is an "immortality project" that expands and retrieves and sometimes even freezes time into a perpetual present as a way of resisting closure, and holding off death.

"The year I made 'Not-About-AIDS-Dance,' I wanted to make that moment stand still," Mr. Greenberg said. In "Part 3 (Luck)," he aims to conquer another loss, this time of a company member, Ellen Barnaby, who will leave the troupe next month. "I had to deal with the emotional trauma of not being able to hold onto the moment anymore," Mr. Greenberg said.

Without Ms. Barnaby and another original cast member, who has already departed, it is unlikely that the trilogy will be repeated.

Mr. Greenberg does finally bring his epic to an end, by saying goodbye to Ms. Barnaby and glimpsing a future of his own (which includes the premiere in May of a dance commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project). The trilogy's parting words, as usual, mean more than they say: "Good luck."



 


Copyright © 1998 -New York Times, Publisher. All rights reserved to New York Times company. All New York Times articles contained on the AEGiS web site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of The New York Times Company. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. However, you may download articles (one machine readable copy and one print copy per page) for your personal, noncommercial use only.

Information in this article was accurate in March 29, 1998. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.