Watching Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan biopic, No Direction Home last weekend, I was struck by a few things (other than the length of Dylan’s fingernails; seriously, watch for it): the amazing footage of Woody Guthrie, Billie Holiday, Dylan, a pre-wrinkle Johnny Cash, Odetta and others; the weirdness of seeing 20-somethings like Dylan and Joan Baez singing lyrics far deeper than their ages would suggest; and the zeitgeist that these folk musicians were either channeling or shaping themselves. Born in ’71, I realized that I can’t fully grasp the optimism and fear of those times–the promise and peril of the civil rights movement, war in Indochina (that eventually snowballed into the Vietnam War), a growing progressive consciousness–and how Baez’s music reflected or contributed to these social changes. So I also have no idea how Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker felt when she heard–in English, a language she didn’t then understand–the haunting voice of Joan Baez in 1967. Now 45, De Keersmaeker visits the Walker December 1-3 to perform a work set entirely to the album Joan Baez in Concert, Part 2.
Called Once, this first-ever solo performance by De Keersmaeker is partly a movement homage to the music and the era, but seems just as vital right now. The piece, which only has two stops in the US (New York and Minneapolis), ends in a way the Village Voice calls “sensational… in the deepest sense“:
Gradually she sheds articles of clothing until she winds up in black panties with flickering images from “The Birth of a Nation” projected on her body and the back wall.
Given the presence of that film, widely excoriated as racist, and Mr. Dylan’s “With God on Our Side,” as well as her decision to end with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” this might seem a typical European exercise in America-bashing. But the recurrent images from the film are of war, not the Klan righteously defending the sullied honor of Southern womanhood. Religious fundamentalism is hardly confined to this country. Ms. Baez and Mr. Dylan are both very American. And the bulk of the Baez songs are old folk ballads about doomed love.
The performance actually takes its name from one such love song, Baez’s “Once I Had a Sweetheart,” and fittingly includes these words from Baez: “ Only you and I can help the sun rise each coming morning, If we don’t, it may drench itself out in sorrow.” The image of a solo dancer covered, erased almost, by images of war from Griffith’s film, seems a sobering one, especially as innocent lives are wiped out in today’s wars. But De Keersmaeker seems to have a more uplifting message than that. The work also includes this Baez mantra:
“Action is the antidote to despair.”
Here’s what De Keersmaeker has to say about Baez and Once. Get your tickets here.