Friday, March 7, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope gets some momentum on country roads

In the spirit of the inspiration with a popular music genre that made "Super Soul" such a success a few seasons ago, Dance Kaleidoscope is turning to Nashville this weekend for "Kings & Queens of Country."

Dancers in "Ring of Fire" segment of "Heart's Desire." (Crowe's Eye Photography)
The show, seen in a preview performance Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, is certain to make new friends for the contemporary-dance troupe among country fans who may be uneasy about the art of dance in general. The program consists of two appealing world premieres, opening with "Heart's Desire," choreographed by frequent DK guest Cynthia Pratt, and concluding with David Hochoy's "Deep in the Heart of Country."

The heart-healthy titles signal the importance of love's joys and trials in country music. They also seem to convey a recognition that, even when layered with sophisticated production, the genre speaks directly to the emotions. The new works thus have fertile ground to till, both in the obviously catchy rhythmic area and in giving free rein to the genre's open-heartedness. It's a broad canvas for a choreographer to paint upon.

Set off by Laura Glover's sensitive lighting, Guy Clark's costumes suit the nature of each piece. Pratt's work calls for jeans (cutoffs for the women) and checkered shirts; it makes more of the collective spirit of country music, with the look of casual playfulness lending a down-to-earth quality. The serious themes, often entrusted to DK members in twos and threes, always had a Grand Ole Opry sweep to them. Taking in as much emotional terrain as the song allowed was how her settings proceeded.

Three-way dramas of jealousy and rejection were played out to "Jolene,"as Caitlin Negron and Emily Dyson grasped, clung to and were dragged by a striding, resistant Justin David Sears-Watson. The scooting and flirting of "Little Yellow Blanket" had Aleksa Lukasiewicz and Noah Trulock romping nonstop. But even when Pratt works with intimate scenarios, they move with an oddly mercurial grandeur. Mariel Greenlee, perhaps the most gifted actor in the company, tugged at the heartstrings in her elaborate duet with Timothy June to "September When It Comes."

More typical of Pratt's style was the busy, shifting crowd of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye," which launches "Heart's Desire," and the lyrical group effusions of "All the Road Running," which concludes it.

Hochoy's way is to center the emotion more in individual dancers' bodies, with the charge coming from how these nearly self-contained physical worlds interact. I felt that the portions involving the whole company in "Deep in the Heart of Country" matched the material, but didn't bring out Hochoy's heart as effectively as the duets and trios.  For instance, the wit of "Stand By Your Man" made that anthem a punning play on sexual ambivalence: Timothy June skipped into view on the chorus, complicating the rapport between Dyson and Sears-Watson, and the three-way comic tension was delicious.

I loved the crispness of attitude and engagement with such songs as "Oh Lonesome Me," with Jillian Godwin and Liberty Harris a sassy tap-dancing pair. And the girl-buddy bonding, in rolling, artfully linked fashion, that Greenlee and Negron brought to "Free." And the tug of war between obsession and self-possession in how Godwin and Zach Young danced Patsy Cline's "Crazy."

"The Sources of Country Music" by Thomas Hart Benton.
"Kings & Queens of Country" recognizes how far country music has come, even at the risk of being alienated from its roots. It sits squarely on its familiar themes. It knows its territory. The show leaves aside the continuing strain of piety in the genre, but that merely acknowledges its present-day worldly spectrum — where the money is.

A classic representation of the tradition embodied in its practitioners is Thomas Hart Benton's famous mural "The Sources of Country Music" at the Country Music Hall of Fame. In this show, we are a long way from that painting's turning bodies, necks twisted, heads raised toward the far horizon and the chugging train speaking to the urge to move on and look for a better world. Pratt's choreography for the full company retains something of those postures, however.

Clark's airy, bright costumes suit Hochoy's fanciful side, just as they salute Nashville's glitzy veneer and the games that the commercialism of Music City has long played with aw-shucks material. Of all folk-derived American music, business values and a tendency toward slickness have seized country music for so long that there's hardly any point deploring their influence.

Both choreographers appear to recognize the precarious balance between the tell-it-like-it-is vibe of Nashville and its cult of celebrity and glamour. Pratt and Hochoy face the ambiguity as well, but that never casts a shadow on their exuberance. And the dancers respond to that indigenous quality at every turn.