Cowboy Melodrama, in Sequins – Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal | photo credit Andrej Lamut

In many ways, Pursuit of Happiness, created by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper of Nature Theater of Oklahoma (named after the theater in Kafka’s novel Amerika) and performed by Slovenian dance troupe EN-KNAP Group was the epitome of all things Fringe Arts: absurd costumes, awkward jokes, moments of good—sometimes even great—dance and (perhaps fringiest of all) a run time that could’ve been just a wee bit shorter. But the audience crowded into Drexel’s Mendell Theatre on September 20 ate it up, with raucous laughter throughout the entire 90-minute program and a lengthy standing ovation at the end.

So just what was Pursuit of Happiness about? Or, perhaps more appropriately given the scope of this publication, what are we to make of its dance? To answer the first question, I give you a description from its creators (which does perhaps the best job of summing up the “plot”): “Part barn dance, part movie pitch, part comedy of manners, Pursuit of Happiness plays with language, movement, setting, and genre through an endlessly morphing folk tale of ultra-violent Western expansion, taking on the myth and legacy of the American Dream and its aspirational aftermath.”

The dancing itself—inspired by a cowboy dance instructional— was fun, and well-executed with high kicks and jazz hands aplenty. These were juxtaposed with a motif of body rolls and Jookin’ style footwork that would pop up at the most unexpected of times, serving to remind us of the absurdity of the fictional situation (a dance company giving a performance in the middle of a war zone) and the reality (America’s military occupation of the Middle East). It was perhaps in this regard that Pursuit of Happiness was the most successful: poking fun at the neoliberal conceit of “liberating” the Middle East through the imposition of Western-style democracy, and the less nefarious but just as misguided idea that centuries-old conflicts can be solved simply by bringing people “together” through dance (I’m thinking here of Travis Wall’s “Strange Fruit” on So You Think You Can Dance, which Veronica Jiao so eloquently and rightfully critiqued in an op-ed for Dance Magazine.)

Nevertheless, it was within the frenzied and self-indulgent movie pitch fantasy sequence of Red Bull-fueled dancers attempting to broker a peace between NATO and Iraqi forces that I found myself finally enjoying the jokes (the earlier humor seemed, to me at least, to take cheap shots at the dancers’ accents): the egocentric character of the artistic director, the real-time narration of his company’s  “sophisticated” movement sequences, the “running out” of choreography and the melodramatic censure of any and all improvisation (we are told the dancers had voted unanimously that it would be avoided at all costs).

The jokes were funny, especially for those who work in dance—something akin to the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes and all of the things we don’t want to say about overly ambitious experimental dance, lest we look foolish for our failure to “get it.” Indeed, the monologue is so full chock full of inside jokes by this point that we forgive the ones that hit a little close to home at points because we were all Freshman taking Dance Composition 101 at one point in time and it’s awfully nice to think that we really could solve the world’s problems through dance.

Less forgivable, however, (in my humble opinion) was the use of jazz hands and sequins as shorthand for all that is ridiculous in dance—jazz and Broadway tap are no and no less more ridiculous than the coquetry of ballet or the rampant cultural appropriation of modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis. The creative minds behind Pursuit of Happiness are clearly very adept and very clever; they could have done better here than to simply replicate Eurocentric tropes that —to paraphrase Tommy DeFrantz—grant ballet and modern dance a profundity that is denied to other forms.

That said, I have been mulling over this performance for many days, coming away with something different each time, and this, I suppose, is the entire point of Fringe Arts and works such as Pursuit of Happiness.