Saturday, May 3, 2014

Get the picture? Dance Kaleidoscope does, reviving two brilliant works based on paintings at the Indianapolis Museum of Art


It's long been evident that David Hochoy has a choreographer's special sensitivity to music, and at a level that recalls that of George Balanchine.  But his revival of "Girl at the Piano: Recording Sound" for Dance Kaleidoscope not only presents one marvel after another keyed to Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, but also delves into a spectrum of suggestions about a painting's meaning.

Beyond the frame: DK's Jillian Godwin
I never saw the premiere in 1994, but the signature skills of today's DK troupe must in any case present a new vision of the piece. Titled after the work by Theodore Roszak (1907-1981) in the Indianapolis Museum of Art's permanent collection, Hochoy's interpretation is fleshed out through Barry Doss's variegated, character-specific costumes, distant relatives of commedia dell'arte stylization. (You can see it along with 2003's "Georgia O'Keeffe: Heart of Joy" through Sunday in a program titled "Pictured This" in the IMA's Tobias Theater.)

Each of Doss' costumes invests the figures in the Girl's life with a distinct personality, expressed with vivid angularity through the dancers. Her family — severe Mother and Father, teasing Brother and independent Sister — is supplemented by a fun-loving Friend, a supportive Teacher, and a romantic partner representing Music.

The set (by Doss, Laura Freison, and Frank Weiner) mimics the abstractness of Roszak's representation of the piano and the recording equipment, with his surrealistic slanted discs and geometric shapes floating at the upper right. Laura E. Glover's lighting is grounded in the painting's rich browns, which vary from dark through earth tones to golden, with spots of white brilliance. Those contrasts echo the painting's enigmatic, lunar-like light and dark halves of the Girl's face.

Jillian Godwin is the Girl, complexly expressive in Hochoy's setting, strong at the start but also pensive. As the range of discipline and freedom that art presents to any practitioner engages her, her vulnerability comes through. Her parents' unbending harshness, formidably presented by Liberty Harris and Timothy June, is relieved by the flexible support of the Teacher (Mariel Greenlee).

Some of Rachmaninoff's more charming music brings the Friend (Justin David Sears-Watson) into this scenario, drawing smiles from the Girl and convincing her that music is fun. The Friend's collapse leads to the mysterious approach of the famous 18th variation, an inspired inversion of the theme, here opening with the Girl in fetal position and gradually becoming the soaring vehicle for her survival. Music (Brandon Comer) exalts her out of mourning.

This portion of Hochoy's piece was breathtaking in Friday's performance. The mood of darkness, never far from the surface in Rachmaninoff and accordingly in Hochoy, returns with a martial variation focused on the men. It seems to be a passage through which the Girl must pass to achieve rapport with her family (including the formerly aloof Sister [Caitlin Negron]) and others in her world through a new relationship to her art — as both performed and recorded.

Hochoy's sense of humor is interwoven with the approach of the piece's climax, as the Girl abandons her LP fixation to become enamored of the shiny CD the Brother (Noah Trulock) teases her with. The 24th and final variation is the occasion for ensemble display, miraculously ending with a well-timed, winking salute from one side of the stage, as the Girl sets a seal on the music's soft, elfin coda by striking the same reflective pose at the piano she had at the outset.

Dance Kaleidoscope's show: "Girl at the Piano" (top), "Georgia O'Keeffe: Heart of Joy" (bottom)
Then we realize with delight and astonishment that we have been treated to a virtuoso display of dance equal to the variety of the composer's mercurial use of the Paganini theme. At the same time, the expert portrayals by Godwin and her colleagues have been embedded in an original narrative that probes the mystery of Roszak's painting without providing pat answers to it.


 "Jimson Weed" is a daringly large floral painting (70 inches by 83.5 inches), the pillowy petals of whose blossoms crowd the canvas. We are daringly close as we view it at the IMA; it's one of those paintings that, stepping away from, we still seem to have our noses against the subject matter. The flowers don't diminish, but seem to get bigger.

Fittingly, Hochoy's "Georgia O'Keeffe: Heart of Joy" has abundantly open stances, towering and whirling erect postures, turns that describe wide arcs, and a presentational exuberance toward the audience. With the company clad in Cheryl Sparks' resonant costumes, which by repetition reinforce the choreography's flow and rounded contours, the piece in some sense files  off all the corners that "Girl at the Piano: Recording Sound" thrust toward us.

Set to three movements from Philip Glass' Symphony No. 4 ("Heroes"), this ensemble piece is organically structured, but in much more than the cliche sense one might attach to the work because of its botanical inspiration.

There is something else behind its feeling of space, something more hollowed-out and "negative."
Speculative as this may be, I can see in "Georgia O'Keeffe: Heart of Joy" nuances of the painting on view on the opposite wall. It's "Pelvis with the Distance," and I wonder if it too was in Hochoy's mind as he made this work.

The dancers' range of arm movement encloses and releases large units of curved space just as the painter did in her graceful close-up rendering of a sun-bleached animal hip bone. The "distance" of the title is the far desert horizon, a natural context that is at the same time a little disorienting. Similarly, the glow of the backdrop in "Heart of Joy" abruptly shifts to black toward the end, throwing the dancers into startling high relief.

“It is a kind of thing that I do that makes me feel I am going off into space – in a way that I like – and that frightens me a little," O'Keeffe said about her "pelvis series, " "because it is so unlike what anyone else is doing – I always feel that sometime I may fall off the edge – it is something I like so much to do that I don’t care if I do fall off the edge.”

Dancers know the feeling, I'm sure, particularly those who rise to the occasions David Hochoy puts before them as well as the members of Dance Kaleidoscope do in "Picture This. "