Men Think They are Better Than Grass, a new performance created by the Deborah Slater Dance Theater, takes its title and inspiration from a number of poems by the deep ecologist W.S. Merwin. The central idea behind deep ecology is that humans should not feel an entitlement toward the environment. Instead, deep ecologists argue, humans should consider themselves as just one factor in a dynamic, closed system, and accept that they do not have the right to interfere with the environment except to satisfy basic needs.
Part of what is impressive about Men Think They Are Better Than Grass is how fully the dance company was able to create a performance that embodies the closed system concept that deep ecologists speak of. Dancers perform to the sound of Merwin's poems read aloud by different voices, some of which (like KQED's own Michael Krasny, holler!) might be familiar. At the same time a host of other elements -- an original score, environmental sounds, lighting design, and video projected throughout the performance -- create a closed system of their own, and each element within the system feeds back on the others: the words on the music, the dancers on the words, the light on the dancers.
Swathes of blue cloth hang from the ceiling. A few small potted plants occupy the corners of the room. A large translucent bowl catches a steady drip of water throughout the show. When the dancers arrive on stage, dressed in pinstripes, carrying briefcases and stomping hurriedly at right angles, light shines on the blue swathes, revealing them as sheets of plastic. The plastic later becomes a character in the performance; sheets curl up to the ceiling with an effect similar to burning, others fall to the ground, entangling the dancers. The show is remarkably effective at subtle suggestion without patronizing the audience, and the plastic is one example.
Men Think was two years in development -- and it shows. From the set and the lighting design, the poems and the voices that read them, even the site of the staging, with its rough-hewn wooden floors, every single detail is meticulously selected, designed, and interwoven to maximum effect. At times, though, the layering of so many elements makes it difficult to choose where to focus your attention. While the performance can be viewed as an interesting analogy to the A.D.D. way many of us live our lives today, the show walks a fine line between stimulation and inundation.
While there are a number of elements at work in Men Think They Are Better Than Grass, the most fascinating is the interaction between poetry and dance. I wasn't immediately sold on the idea of choreographing dance to poetry rather than (or sometimes in addition to) music. The more I thought about it though, the more natural the pairing seemed -- poetry manipulates language, a tool we employ everyday, to express concepts or ideas in new ways. Dance does the same, exposing the possibilities of movement, with bodies as its raw material. In the end, it was the pliability of language and bodies highlighted by the performance that stuck with me. It left me optimistic about the power of human ingenuity, with particular regard to the show's central theme, our realtionship with the environment. If we can think up new ways to do things with our words and our bodies, solutions to our other problems can't be far off.
Men Think They Are Better Than Grass runs through May 9, 2010 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida Street in San Francisco. Performances are at 8pm Thursday through Saturday, and 5pm Sunday. For tickets and information visit DeborahSlater.org.