Friday, February 26, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope plucks flowers from the folk-rock 'revolution' of the '60s and '70s

David Hochoy takes a chance in presenting programs of dances set to well-known music. It probably works out well in marketing terms, Dance Kaleidoscope hopes, as it did with "Super Soul" in 2012.

Only a choreographer as secure in his vision as Hochoy, however, could hope that his concepts and the work of his troupe won't come across as mere accompaniment to well-remembered and well-loved pop songs

In the jingle-jangle morning: Timothy June in "Mr. Tambourine Man."
In Thursday's opening performance in the two-weekend run of "Voices of a Generation: The Folk/Rock Revolution" at Indiana Repertory Theatre, the hazard was largely avoided. True, there's the further challenge of looking back four and five decades for musical material while counting on putting younger butts in the seats. I believe dance excellence should be enough to attract all generations, whatever the music, but it may not be. Familiar musical hooks may well be indispensable to long-term success, assuming DK keeps its artistic standards high.

With several contributions from guest choreographer Nicholas Owens, Hochoy has assembled dance interpretations of 17 songs — a harvest of inspiration that will force me to pick only a few pieces for comment. From the free-form individuality of "The Times They Are A-Changin" through "Turn, Turn, Turn," a swirling, collective statement to the Byrds' hit version of Pete Seeger's song, the show was both a challenge and a treat.

Why a challenge? The meaning of popular music for the generation spotlighted was unsettlingly diverse: Visions of happiness were presented as enjoy-it-while-you-can moments, almost resisting the temptation of getting sentimental about it. Conflict was both low-key and dour on the one hand (Simon and Garfunkel's "Dangling Conversation") and confrontational and menacing on the other (Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Richie Havens' "Freedom"). A rock critic of the time truly said that the era's typical song lyrics "see the rose through world-colored glasses." But the rose was really there.

Owens' graphic style was displayed in the ferocity of "For What It's Worth," relieved immediately afterward by the reassurance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Far apart in the course of the song, two human bridges are formed, one traversed confidently, the other crawled across. The famous recording swells to anthemic grandeur, but Owen's steady vision indicates that the promise of community and mutual support is hard to deliver. How much more so it seems to be today!

Is there anything she can't do?: Mariel Greenlee in "Twisted."

In 2014, I lauded the reprise of Mariel Greenlee's "searing solo to 'Losing My Mind,' displaying her as a technically pure dancer as well as an adept tragedienne." Hochoy always sees other possibilities in his outstanding dancers, and so went against type with Greenlee in fashioning Joni Mitchell's "Twisted" for her in this show.

Technical purity was shooed out the door, and the song's comical craziness jerked the dancer into humorous dishevelment from first to last. Every gesture told: You can embrace crazy, you can keep it at arm's length; you're just as crazy either way. Not surprisingly, Greenlee proved as good at one end of the expressive and technical spectrum as she so often has at the other.

The program's other solo involved Brandon Comer, back from an injury, in Simon and Garfunkel's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." It was breathtaking to see this dancer seeming (at the risk of sounding blasphemous) to have the whole world in his hands. The space defined by those arced, stretching arms and striding, gliding legs was all-encompassing. It was like seeing Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man*  getting his groove on.

The musical era of "Voices of a Generation" worked on ways to blend the influence of the folk revival and the multifaceted stage of rock music after it learned to drop the "'n' roll" part. It didn't want to assault you, this program suggests, with the exception of the one-of-a-kind Nina Simone in "House of the Rising Sun" (treated with single-minded vigor by Owens). It was suspicious of leaders, but it kept coming up with them. Hochoy's treatment of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" injects more than a little magic into that ambivalence. "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters," would be Dylan's hard-edged advice not long after.

Owens' most magisterial piece was his seven-man interpretation of "Homeward Bound," a Simon and Garfunkel song that puts the search for settledness foremost, as long as the opportunities for adventure and self-discovery have been adequately explored. In the closing tableau vivante, Noah Trulock's half-dozen confreres point the way forward — and upward.
The final image of "Turn, Turn, Turn" in DK's new show.

Hope similarly animates the program's finale, "Turn, Turn, Turn." Seeger's adaptation of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes surmounts the succession of time's vagaries with "a time for peace — I swear it's not too late." It's an idealist's way out of the quagmire in which the Bible's most pessimistic book is set. Memorable in so many ways, Ecclesiastes doesn't want to place its bets on any aspect of human existence. It both recommends laughter and calls it foolish.

In setting this sobering balance, Hochoy allows himself to be more literal than usual, but I think the lyrics compel a visualization of antithetical actions across the breadth of time. You have to show there's a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together, and put corresponding movement of the contrast in the context of time's flow. There's plenty of company along the way, well in advance of Seeger's dream of peace at the end (when Laura Glover's lighting design projects a large peace sign onto the Upperstage floor).

I don't know if Hochoy went back to Ecclesiastes for choreographic ideas, but two passages besides the ones Seeger used leap out at me now. The first is particularly suited to dance, even though repetitions of "Turn, turn, turn" in the song may also account for what the audience sees. Ecclesiastes 1:6 says: "The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits."

This is perfect as a descriptor of the parting and coalescing movements of the company in Hochoy's setting of this song. The other passage gets at its emotional heart, helped by Guy Clark's costumes. Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 says:"Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone?"

Amen to that. "Voices of a Generation" generates that kind of heat, and deserves to overlay any nostalgia those who attend may harbor for the songs by themselves.

[*This link provides good information on Vitruvian Man; I was more amused than annoyed by the decision to redact his privates.]

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]