nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 10, 2007
Almost from the birth of the railroad in the mid-19th century, trains and the romance of vast distances lodged themselves into the popular cultural consciousness of America through song. The distinctive chug-chug rhythms of a moving locomotive, with its bells and whistles, lent itself to numerous pop masterpieces. By turns percussive, driving, yearning, and nostalgic these numbers simultaneously invoked the onward rush of the Mechanical Age and a lost era of American innocence when "starting over" lay just beyond the next junction.
Of course, what these romanticized, hummable fantasies by necessity had to ignore was the violent material reality of how the railroads came to be: the blood of Chinese and Irish immigrants who laid their tracks; the Native populations decimated in their wake; the Negro porters who endured low wages and the abuse of customers to keep them operating. Amtrak, I'm sure, would prefer that its customers focus on the pretty scenery outside the windows and not think too much about the history of the two parallel strips of metal running below their feet.
The women of the Bryan, Texas–based Armstrong/Bergerson Dance Company seem to fall into the former category of thinking about trains with All Aboard, the very charming, but ultimately lightweight, piece they are currently presenting in FringeNYC. A loose collection of dance vignettes, often utilizing said American pop songs about trains and juxtaposed with video images of the dancers improvising in subways, train compartments, or in parks, the piece stages arrivals (the women rush onto the stage, stop, and scan the audience as if looking for a long-lost loved one), departures (a single flexed foot extends out from each woman—a thousand-mile journey beginning with a single step?), the Darwinian struggle to find the best seat on the train (three women jostle each other off of trunks of various sizes).
Much of the dancing is quite lovely, utilizing lots of turns and attitude balances mixed in with more pedestrian, gestural vocabulary. But the most affecting section is also the least showy—company director Carisa Armstrong dances a solo with objects that emerge from an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Meanwhile on videotape, an Amtrak conductor explains the complex system of hand signals developed over the past century-and-a-half by train employees to direct train traffic in the railroad yards. Armstrong gradually incorporates these gestures born out of practical necessity into her dreamy dance. It's a striking reminder that while trains can be a locus of our fantasies of escape and solitude, they are also places of businesses in which thousands of people make their living doing what is hard, often very dangerous, work.
Would that the rest of the piece had this level of nuance and self-awareness. But for me there was an even more serious problem evident: If these women had wanted to make a Hollywood-style movie-musical fantasy about trains, that would have been perfectly fine with me. However, the material keeps hinting at the darker themes of death and exploitation associated with railroads without ever really engaging with them, most egregiously in the use of Steve Reich's Different Trains as the musical thread tying the disparate events together. Contrary to the program notes, Reich's piece is not just a melodic evocation of riding trains as a boy. It contrasts that happy childhood memory with his adult knowledge that simultaneously his Jewish relatives in Central and Eastern Europe were riding different trains to the gas chambers. To build an entire piece around this sonic Holocaust memorial without ever acknowledging its anguished content smacks of irresponsibility. As it is, All Aboard settles for merely a lovely excursion when it could have actually taken its audience someplace.