An American Rendition

AE Interviews Joan La Barbara
September 2008

An American Rendition is a dance theater work by Jane Comfort and Company that explores our moral and political paralysis in the face of torture, alongside our national obsession with TV reality shows. With commissioned music by Joan La Barbara, the piece premieres at the Duke Theater in New York City on September 24, 2008.

AE What is the story of your involvement in this production?

JLB An American Rendition is the second collaboration I have done with choreographer Jane Comfort. Our first collaboration was Fleeting Thoughts for which we were honored by the Coalition of Professional Women in Media and the Arts. We enjoyed working together so much on that production that we decided to do another one.

Jane had done quite a bit of political work earlier in her career and felt that she wanted to do something to focus attention on the many ways that our country has changed over the past 8 years, not least of which includes losses of personal freedom and horrors, like torture, being done in the name of the American people.

We had a number of concept meetings as we launched the work and the idea of reality shows having their own kind of psychological torture, came up. We agreed that it was bizarre that people would actually vie to participate in demeaning activities for their few minutes of tv fame. It was shocking to see the statistics that more people vote for contestants on American Idol than in national elections.

AE How did you approach working with Jane Comfort in writing the music?

JLB One of the first things Jane asked me to compose was a comforting song, something that the detainee heard in his mind to soothe himself and try to retain his sanity after the interrogation sessions. I felt that the detainee might retreat to a time in his life when he felt secure and protected, probably a time during childhood, and I created a song that a grandmother or care-giver might have sung, a kind of lullaby. I also wanted it to feel as if it were a song that was somehow familiar. It turned out to be a very beautiful song, very plaintive, soothing but sorrowful at the same time.

In dealing with the 'reality show' segments we did include some karaoke settings of pop songs to make a point. I also used a lot of breath sounds. In some cases, it is the poignancy of the breath, the very humanness of it, that makes it so shocking. I also used breath in its sexual connotation, to emphasize both the overt sexual overtones of certain tv programs and also the degradation imposed on detainees, as we saw from the photos of the atrocities at Abu Graib prison.

I also have the dancers break into song at odd moments, to heighten the unreal aspects of certain scenes. In 'Missing Persons Report', the women suddenly begin operatic vocalizing. It is a startling and effective moment.

AE How did you think about the political implications of this work from a musical point of view?

JLB I'm not sure how to answer that question except that I tried to make the music very much 'in your face', very raw in places, very personal, yet somehow surreal. It is very intense. The work was very intense for everyone involved. It is highly emotional and the actor/singer/dancers have done a remarkable job delivering this disturbing piece.

Photo by Joel Chadabe