Bruce Wood (right) rehearsing Albert Drake (left) and Ben Needham-Wood. Photo by Brian Gulliaux.
- Manny Mendoza review of Bruce Wood (pay wall)
- TheaterJones review of Bruce Wood
- Star-Telegram column on Hotel Texas
Our commemorations of JFK’s assassination in Dallas have begun already — not the official, solemn, city-sanctioned, day-of, Dealey Plaza tribute, of course, which will be a security-screened, tickets-only event for some 5,000 people, and you can probably bet who’s going to be admitted and who isn’t. So, for the rest of us, it’s Dallas-area arts organizations that have been stepping up to mark the occasion — with what, so far, haven’t been ‘tributes’ so much as evocations/re-creations of what was lost.
First, the DMA opened Hotel Texas last month, an exhibition based on the impromptu art gallery that Fort Worth art patrons installed in the Kennedys’ hotel room when they stayed in Fort Worth November 21, 1963 — before coming to Dallas the next day. Then, this past weekend, the Bruce Wood Dance Project closed its third season with its debut at the City Performance Hall (which proved an excellent, nearly-sold-out venue for the dance group). Red + 2 was a trio of works, opening with the beautifully austere Red from 2001 and closing with the lively and beguiling Rhapsody in Blue from 1999. Sandwiched in between was the world premiere of White Rabbit.
White Rabbit was a ’60s mash-up, presenting both Kennedy and what followed his death, culturally, sexually, musically. The dance piece appropriated audio clips from JFK speeches — particularly his inaugural address from 1961 — and interspersed them among later, period songs, such as the Youngbloods’ ’67 hit, “Get Together” and Jefferson Airplane’s titular, bolero-like head trip from 1966. So everything went off simultaneously: All of the tie-dyed clothing and loose-limbed hippie moves were offered as a realization of the spirit of Kennedy liberalism, if not the letter. And his assassination — which obviously, occurred before all these songs were ever written and the ‘summer of love’ got underway — brutally cut off the hijinks. Wood’s last image was of a dancer falling over, unable to stand up.
It was a very dramatic closer, but not a convincing one. It lent the illusion of a full statement — period, stop — when what preceded it was unfocused, muddling together an evocation of the ’60s with a memorial to JFK. Admirably, Wood did not sink to the usual, easy, ’60s quotations and cliches: No strobe lights or psychedelic effects, no amusing frugs or watusis. The male dancers didn’t even sport bell bottoms. Wood’s choice of music also strayed from the expected — “White Rabbit” has been an ever-present TV reference for ‘psychedelic drug abuse’ and ‘teens running wild” — but Wood also employed the pop-soul goofiness of Three Dog Night’s “Never Been to Spain.”
So initially, there was a sense that White Rabbit could be a clean, fresh take on the overly familiar — or a brilliant song cycle like Wood’s Lovett! After all, he’s visited this territory before, having sized up the ’60s with 1999’s Spontaneous Combustion.
But for a ‘period piece’ or for a work about JFK, White Rabbit never conjured up civil rights protests and race riots, the rise of the drug culture or the draft and the Vietnam War (except for a brief flash of peace signs). Except for the JFK audio snippets and the overall air of youthful exuberance, this was a fairly content-free version of the ’60s zeitgeist.
So what, exactly, did the ’60s and JFK represent in White Rabbit? Primarily, the loss of innocence. It’s a notion often tagged onto the era, one that doesn’t actually explain much, just colors everything with a tinge of loss and melancholy. Witness the fact that it’s tagged on almost any evocative, catastrophic event in American history: the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination, the ’20s and the Stock Market Crash, Pearl Harbor, the Red Scare, Altamont, 9/11, the failure of New Coke.
Given all this, what actually distinguished Wood’s physical fun onstage was its homoeroticism. A gay sensuality was present in the group wrigglings, but the high point of White Rabbit was the sensual, sliding, spinning duet between dancers Albert Drake and the dramatically bare-chested Ben Needham-Wood. We were reminded — oh, yeah, that’s right — that the cause of gay rights in America also had its breakout moment in the ’60s as well — with the Stonewall Riot in 1969.
So as much as anything, the purpose of White Rabbit was Wood’s inclusion of an uninhibited gay male physicality; he was claiming the ‘6os ‘youth culture’ for gays as well. No problem with that — particularly when pop culture treatments of sex in the period are typically given over to what academics like to call the ‘heteronormative': images of the Pill, feminist protests, topless dancers, long-haired straight couples dancing at Woodstock or the Whiskey a Go Go.
But the gay sexuality did complicate the whole homage to Kennedy deal. Kennedy, after all, was a diehard anti-Communist and a reluctant civil-rights pioneer. His inaugural address is a stirring Cold War call to duty and noble struggle (“We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend”) and not an anti-authoritarian protest or hym to self-indulgence. He (and, ironically, his death) may have helped trigger this cultural eruption, all these styles of self-expression, but he hardly embodied them. So one was simultaneously aware of Wood waving his hand at the back, saying ‘We were there, too!’ and the sense of how closeted and in-denial the ’60s actually were, no matter how seemingly free-spirited.
Inevitably, perhaps, Hotel Texas is much more tightly focused than White Rabbit. It deals entirely with what may have been the world’s first exclusive, one-day, ‘pop-up’ gallery, a three-room affair in a single suite in the Fort Worth Hotel. The president and first lady were not going to be housed in the top-level penthouse (because of security concerns), so wealthy Fort Worth residents, led by Sam B. Cantey III and the late Ruth Carter Johnson (later Stevenson), decided to offset the potential embarrassment by mustering together 16 artworks and upgrading Suite 850 with them.
Their choices ranged from a representative piece of top-shelf ‘Western’ art (a Charles Russell painting of Indians meeting trappers), European masters (such as an early experiment in pointillism by Van Gogh, above), hipper, more contemporary abstract works by the likes of Franz Kline and Henry Moore as well as the artistic pride of Fort Worth, Thomas Eakins’ Swimming.
Hotel Texas represents a collaboration between the DMA and the Amon Carter, bringing together 13 of the original 16 artworks (plus period items from the Sixth Floor Museum), and it’s touching, in a memorable-historical-footnote-kind-of-way. It’s a small exhibition and the original selections don’t amount to a memorable curatorial achievement. But it has its moments — even here with a Picasso sculpture and the Russell nearby, the Eakins simply dominates whatever room it’s in.
But we’re touched because, obviously, these are the last art works the couple ever saw together (and the Kennedys themselves appreciated the gesture, making a phone call to thank Ruth Carter Johnson). So we have that frisson of time travel — a little like standing near Oswald’s window in the Sixth Floor and looking down on to Elm Street and realizing how, well, intimate and close a shooting in Dealey Plaza can seem. At the DMA, we are, more or less, in Suite 850 with the first couple, seeing what they saw.
We’re also touched because we gain a palpable sense of the moment and the place and the people. This is Fort Worth in the early ’60s, fearful of being seen as a yokel-ish outback but also proud of its Western roots and its with-it art, putting out its best dinnerware for the important visitors.
And we see regular Fort Worth residents as well, cheering and greeting the president’s arrival, their open-faced eagerness pouring out of the crowded, large-scale black-and-white photos that adorn the gallery’s entrance. As Bob Ray Sanders has noted, Hotel Texas may be the most moving image of Fort Worth ever presented in Dallas.
As I said, it’s a small show. But more than anything outside of the Sixth Floor, it makes a viewer achingly aware of the historic upheaval waiting just offstage — what’s about to wreck all this eager anticipation.