T. S. Eliot wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1917, while the First World War was devastating Europe and imperial absolutes were beginning to crumble. It was the year of the Russian revolution; in two more years, the victorious powers would meet in Paris to reconfigure the map of the world. Till We Wake, a collaboration between 3rd Law Dance/Theater and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is built around Eliot's poem, using video images, snippets of poetry and prose, music ranging from Mozart to Scott Joplin, and the services of an actor — CSF artistic director Philip Sneed — and ten gifted dancers. The piece deals with modernism, the disintegration of certainty and belief, social and political fragmentation, and the consonances that 3rd Law has found between historical and far more recent events. So we see New York Times headlines mourning the death of FDR or announcing the resignation of Gorbachev, and we hear the voice of George W. Bush encouraging us to go shopping and announcing "Mission accomplished." Perhaps most surprising in its salience is a brief audio clip from a congressional hearing held last fall in which Representative Henry Waxman questions Alan Greenspan on his longtime advocacy of an unregulated free market:
"In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working?"
"Absolutely, precisely," Greenspan responds. "You know, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well."
Till We Wake
Presented by 3rd Law Dance/Theater and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through May 9, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 303-440-7826, www.3rdlaw.org.
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Greenspan's admission obviously applies to the current financial meltdown, and raises large questions about the viability of untrammeled capitalism. But it also applies to the entire worldview we've taken for granted so that, like those who lived through the disintegration of empires, the birth of Communism, the shock of worldwide war and the Great Depression, we're increasingly understanding that the lives of consumerism and comfort we've built for ourselves are likely to be transient. "In a minute, there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse," muses Prufrock.
If the themes of Till We Wake are universal, Eliot's text belongs to a very specific time. Americans may have lost themselves for years in the trivia of shopping malls, video games and reality shows, but the trivia that defined Eliot's world involved stuffy, insular homes and conventional routines, afternoon tea and marmalade. "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons," Prufrock says. And the poet's voice, too, as channeled through Prufrock, is very particular — pinched, desiccated, cautious and dry. It's almost the antithesis of the gentle beauty of Katie Elliott's choreography, and the lyricism of the patterns she creates. The dancing is wonderful throughout, with surprising lifts and moments of quiet revelation. The dancers all have supple, graceful arms and strong bodies, but they are also highly individual in terms of expressiveness and the ways that they move — which makes for some fascinating juxtapositions of slow and sensual against quicksilver, boyishly athletic versus fluid and lean. Elliott herself is wonderfully strong, graceful and eloquent as Prufrock's enigmatic partner — sometimes accepting him, sometimes rejecting, sometimes simply puzzled. There's humor, too, as when Sneed says, "The women come and go, speaking of Michelangelo," and the dancers, who have been drifting about the stage in a kind of chatty wave, stop to look at him questioningly.
At the center of the action is Sneed's reading of the poem, and this is the one troubling part of the production. I imagine hearing it in a dry, reserved voice like Eliot's own, a voice reminiscent of spiders, dust and empty rooms. But Sneed chooses to use the rhythms and intonations that Dylan Thomas was famous for — a reading style that's been endlessly imitated but which only Thomas himself could really pull off with integrity. Perhaps this is Sneed's interpretation of the character, but while Prufrock may be pretentious, I'd never envisioned him as a preening actor. Sneed is at his best when Prufrock is being funny or feeling deflated.
We may never hear the mermaids singing — as Prufrock says he does — but this multi-faceted production is filled with lovely harmonies.