How To Lie Like Nixon

Big Dance Theater looks at the language of deception

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know." Those words from our nation's straight-talking Secretary of Obfuscation, Donald Rumsfeld, bagged the British Plain English Campaign's "Foot in Mouth" award for 2003. Yet the language of political combat has long been a knotty art form. Clinton tangled what it means to be and not to be ("it depends what your definition of the word 'is' is"); Reagan redefined the nation's homeless problem by creating a nation of voluntary campers.

Big Dance Theater, for its part, remains most intrigued by Richard Nixon and the way he spoke about Watergate. Paul Lazar, who directs Big Dance Theater with Annie-B Parson, found that he shared his passion for the Nixon tapes with longtime company member Molly Hickok. And so the two searched for the right circumstances to integrate them into a piece, ultimately creating Plan B, which plays this weekend at the Southern Theater as part of the Walker Art Center's Out There series.

"We had this large tome filled with the transcripts called Abuse of Power and the dialogue is written like a play but it's liberated from being structured like a play," explains Lazar by telephone from Brooklyn. "There was a sort of delicious absurdity in the way [Nixon] and his coterie would talk to each other. I despised Nixon but my politics aren't central to my interest. It's really just about a uniquely strange use of language. You usually don't get to hear the nuance of what people in power talk about. But here it's this descent into an excruciating but absurd quandary. They had something to hide but they happened to be taping themselves, which is lucky for us. They had a mindset, a whole language for their insular group with catch phrases and jargon."

Parson, who was researching the phenomenon of feral children as part of the background work for a new solo, found an unlikely counterpart for the Nixon material in the story of Kaspar Hauser, the 16-year-old "wild child" who turned up in Nuremburg, Germany in 1828, entirely unadapted to society. For five years no one knew who he was; his existence both captivated and confounded the intelligentsia. The young man's murder only intensified the mystery. According to Parson, "Paul was into the [Nixon] language but he didn't think the crime was very dramatic. Then he read about Hauser's murder and he said, 'Now there's a crime!' Hauser became, organically, the pawn of this Nixonesque world."

Once the connection had been made between the wild child and that most unpeaceable Quaker, Big Dance Theatre discovered a kind of dramatic logic to the mix. "One was a world of guile looking for a clean escape and the other was such guilelessness," Lazar says. "The combination tends to be fatal to the more innocent figure. You can't help but have it play out that way, even though we didn't expect it."

Throughout the piece, the Nixon and Hauser figures are never referred to by name; they exist solely as archetypes. This is a common approach for a duo who delight in blending seemingly incongruent but ultimately believable material into their performances. Plan B, for example, is also a musical of sorts, set to Taiwanese torch songs reconstructed by guitarist Gary Lucas of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. Parson also draws upon Japanese dance forms, having watched archival 1920s footage of a Japanese master who influenced modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, along with images of contemporary Japanese teenagers.

Still, don't count on any rote renderings in Big Dance Theater's final product. "There's no attempt to be authentic," Parson states. "I'm not really interested in the authentic movement; there's lots of places where you can go to see that. We study it very hard, we learn the dances, but then we just let it infuse our movement. There are always layers in our work of things we are interested in. Without that it would be pretty drab and straight, like a straight play. To me the world doesn't make perfect sense."

 
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