ADF: Tommy Noonan’s JOHN


The American Dance Festival’s presented Tommy Noonan in his work JOHN, in Shaefer Theater, June 18, 2017. Photo: Ben McKeown.


Taste in art is so personal that almost any artwork will have its appreciators, so it is difficult to say that any art–traditional, transgressive, experimental, whatever–has sinned against an absolute standard. There may be only one mortal sin that art can commit–to be boring.

Again, “boring” is entirely individual. However, I was bored throughout the 5 pm Sunday matinee presentation of Tommy Noonan‘s John in Sheafer Theater, as ADF 2017 continues. (Noonan, in addition to being a director, choreographer, performer and teacher, is co-director of the Saxapahaw non-profit Culture Mill, Inc., which produced this work.) Using a pastiche of spoken quotes, video clips and the idea of John Travolta, celebrity dance star, appearing on a TV show, Noonan attempts a cautionary (but not very) parable about the lowering effects of media “culture” and its inevitable ends. Initially, I twitched between irritation and disgust, both of which offer promising avenues towards some new understanding. But all too soon the yawns began. As my companion said, “if that disco music hadn’t been booming, I’d have taken a nap.”

OK, I was a poor candidate for appreciating this show: I lived through disco and do not wish to revisit it; I have always been repelled by John Travolta; I make my life as TV-free as possible. I find the falsity of the host/star/audience thing almost unbearable, and the willingness of people to participate in it completely confounding. And yes, I was confounded by the evident enjoyment most of the crowd seemed to take in participating in a parody of TV talk show fakery. I was anomalous.

The show is all about fakery; about the layers and layers of artifice of contemporary American life; about artifice as authenticity, and where art may come in, and what’s a con, what’s a lie; about the direct line between celebrity (famous for being famous) worshipping “culture” and the monster in the White House. Worthy topics, if the artist does more than create yet another shiny surface from a hash of recycled sparkly bits. As hard as I tried, I could not find substance or sustenance in the shallows under the surface of John–“there is no there there,” in Gertrude Stein’s words. No new thoughts, no fresh perspectives, no fresh targets for artistic disdain. But its subject was high on the list of trending topics!

And what a waste of dancing talent. The point of repeating, ad nauseum, John Travolta’s famous dance sequence from a film, as seen in a TV clip, is so obvious that you can’t really call it a point–more of a bludgeon. Noonan’s very strong–it takes him a long time to wear down as he further dulls a pop culture moment that had already been flattened into an “iconic” image. The one instant of brilliance in John is the second when Noonan begins to morph the John character into one resembling the current president. But then the wave of obviousness rolls back in.

Of course, what seems obvious, hackneyed or passé depends very much on where one is on one’s own timeline. Everything is new to someone at any given time. But I always thought that art, serious art, aspired to go deep enough into the mysteries that it could continue to offer something as you went below its surface, down, down into the heart of its subject. But in this era, in which surface is supposedly substance (even to an artist critiquing said supposition), I find myself not only anomalous, but anachronistic in holding to such a quaint belief.

Repeats June 19, 8 pm in Shaefer Theater, Bryan Center, Duke.

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