German dramatist Bertolt Brecht viewed most wars as a political panacea for economic downturns and a purposeful division of people by color, religion, language, and geography—a timely perspective in an era defined by the “war on terror,” fears about immigration, and ethnic conflict worldwide. For this reimagining of Brecht and composer Hanns Eisler’s rarely performed music-theater work Roundheads and Pointheads, pioneering choreographer/theater director/writer David Gordon animates and adulterates Brecht’s pre-Holocaust parable to suit his own ends in Uncivil Wars: Moving with Brecht & Eisler.
Gordon notes that Brecht himself borrowed liberally from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in penning Roundheads and Pointheads. “In researching Brecht and his—some say ruthless—use of other folks’ ‘intellectual property,’ I imagine that I have Brechtean permission to acknowledge intention and integrity and to investigate the script for 21st-century connections—which, in this play, run rampant.” For one thing, there’s the setting: a fictitious country called Yahoo, which Gordon describes as having “a big deficit and an overproduction of corn.” Then, as per the Brecht playbook, a war is devised to solve those problems: Yahoo’s leaders—with the goal of avoiding a contentious draft—goad the native-born Roundheads to turn on the Pointheads, who are said to be stealing jobs. Gordon sums it up: “What more could a guy want from a play written in the early thirties?”
Gordon’s liberties with the written word are just one facet of a career devoted to blurring boundaries among the performing arts. “My performance work, from the start, very frequently contained text,” he says, referring to his early days as a founding artist with the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village. By integrating poetry, visual art, and an array of other non-dance art forms into their work, that legendary 1960s collective pushed modern dance into postmodern forms—and captured the attention of Sue Weil, the Walker’s first director of performing arts. Weil invited Gordon and other members from Grand Union, the group that grew out of Judson Dance Theater, to work and perform at the Walker’s brand-new building almost 38 years ago; that residency, Gordon’s first at any institution, led to several more visits here in succeeding years.
“I continue to combine words, movement, and music in varying proportions,” Gordon says, a simple yet apt reflection of the Walker’s roots in interdisciplinary art forms. “I imagine I can ‘have my cake and eat it.’ “ He plays it both ways with the casting of Uncivil Wars, the Walker’s first world premiere of 2009: nine cast members, including acclaimed performance artist John Kelly, actress/dancer Valda Setterfield, and pianist/composer Gina Leishman (Kamakazie Ground Crew), join performers from the University of Minnesota and other local volunteers.
—Walker Magazine March/April 2009