With the dismal economy weighing down the collective psyche of the nation, Americans need an emotional bailout. In her recent dance-theater piece Greed: The Tale of Enron, choreographer Rebecca Davis is banking on finding one in art.
In 2001, Enron's crooked executives used dubious accounting practices to kite the company's value to more than $100 a share, promising more than $100 billion a year in revenue before its house of cards collapsed and left everyone who didn't cash out holding worthless paper. Enron's executives— Chairman Ken Lay (as played by a thoroughly smug Ian Dodge), CEO Jeffrey Skilling (admirably played and danced by Troy Macklin) and CFO Andy Fastow (Charles Russell), among others—gave the economy a bloody nose that's still dripping, and tried to hide their crimes in shredded documents.
The media elevated their crimes to mythical status; after the Enron scandal, Gordon Gekko's name was no longer invoked as the symbol of corporate greed. It took Davis, a fellow business student, entrepreneur, and choreographer, to immortalize the Enron saga in art. Anyone who missed the two performances missed a work that elevated a business case study into a mythical cautionary tale of rampant avarice.
Utilizing a pop score that included Coldplay, 311, Orbital and some public domain instrumentals, Davis begins her piece in a corporate power play, in which Skilling and Rebecca Mark (the sensational Vanessa Woods) vie for the open position of Enron's chief operating officer. Lay arrives, waving his hands like a wizard making an incantation, and Mark sheds her blazer, hikes her skirt, and dazzles in an ensemble movement clearly playing on the potency of sex in the workplace.
A dance of employee loyalty
Dressed in modish suits and black minis, Enron workers thrust their hips from side to side, straddle their desks like pommel horses, and type briefly at computers before spinning away to high-kick. Looking on, Skilling nods his perfectly coiffed head before leading a dance of employee loyalty that surpasses Mark's sexiness with spectacular acrobatic leaps. Lay chooses Skilling, whose exuberant movements make clear that this is the biggest day of his life.
Davis's lightning fast, sharply executed choral movements skillfully blend ballet and hip-hop, and the competitive, combative energy drips from the dancers. Her initial conflict presents an interesting (if historically inaccurate) counterfactual notion: the idea that Enron could have gone in a different direction had Lay chosen Mark rather than Skilling.
But this is art and myth, not history. Davis infuses her piece with a vitality and seriousness of emotion that transforms the men and women of corporate America into a pantheon. Signing a contract becomes a sleek piece of choreography. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake may parade about with a prized crossbow, but Fastow in Enron carries aloft a red-leather bound business proposal.
The good company man and his fate
The work's tragic character is Cliff Baxter (Sergey Pakharev), the sole executive who refused to sign off on Enron's "mark to market" accounting scheme that inflated earnings. He's portrayed as the good "company man," slapping away a female worker who tries to flirtatiously fix his tie, then sitting stone-faced when Mark places the leather-bound proposal between her legs and tries to put his hand on it.
As the remaining executives endorse fraudulent accounting practices, Lay struts down the board table as if it's a catwalk. Davis's visually entrancing choreography has the ensemble spin in fast unison, mirroring the craziness of the measure they just approved. Later, she balances this with a beautifully touching and despair-filled trio as Baxter leaves his family (and goes off to his suicide). Here Pakharev's face captures all the poignancy latent in a man's change of attitude when he takes his tie off at work to resign.
In Baxter, Davis sets a great contrast to Skilling. As Enron falls apart, Skilling forces Baxter to hand out a sheaf of pink slips to a parading row of employees, and later stares long into the depth of his vanity in a mirror before dancing by himself for a full minute. Oblivious and self-obsessed even as he destroys a company, Skilling remains indifferent to the pain and suffering he's caused, completely compelling in the belief of his total innocence.
An over-reliance on flash
Some moments of shoddy execution and an over-reliance on flash slightly mar the brilliance of this piece. The dance didn't always achieve the technical standards that some of the ballet movements required, and Davis needs to temper her reliance on forceful, fast movements with a more subtle, measured, and softer, nuanced understanding of emotion. She doesn't waste any motion, but her too-poppy choreography exaggerates much, and with the exception of a few key scenes, the entire piece feels like a two-hour sprint. Even bankers take occasional holidays.
Her choreography lags when the issues aren't conflict, a weakness that wasn't evident in her earlier Darfur. Moreover, her abrupt end of Act I, while indicative of the rolling blackouts that Enron caused, seemed like a cheat— a way to end the first half without really ending it.
Skilling's last moment
Nevertheless, as she did in Darfur, Davis uses the dramatic pitch of her storytelling to a powerful effect. When more than a few Americans despair over layoffs, the loss of savings, and some even consider (and commit) suicide, it's not Pakharev's sensitive portrayal of Baxter's death that carries the end of this piece. It's the final moment of Skilling, alone on the stage, as a see-through scrim bearing the image of the Supreme Court descending in front of him, imprisoning him inside the house of justice that creates the real moment of catharsis in this piece.
Unlike the novels of Garet Garrett or Ayn Rand, Davis took something tragic about the intersection of human avarice and lax regulation in a capitalist economy and made something incredibly celebratory, beautiful, and powerful. But I couldn't help wondering, as I left the theater: Did Lay and Skilling deserve a tribute like Enron?