Friday, June 3, 2016

Dance Kaleidoscope revives two pieces featuring main characters who discover that being out of their element is their element

Dance Kaleidoscope is ending its 2015-16 season with a couple of inspired pieces by artistic director David Hochoy: "An American in Paris" (2014) and, in celebration of his 25 years at the helm of DK, the spectacular "Scheherazade" (1992).

An American in Paris (Brandon Comer) romances his muse (Caitlin Negron)
The musical scores on which each piece is based have the appeal of a program or scenario behind them, but also something of the ongoing tension in music between structure and evocation of feelings on the one hand and a picturesque, often specific narrative on the other. A choreographer gets to evade this tension by visualizing a new response to the music, which may touch on the scenario the composer had in mind freely and selectively.

That's what Hochoy has done in masterly fashion. As seen on opening night Thursday at Indiana Repertory Theatre, "An American in Paris" took a sprightly, buoyant approach to Gershwin's score.

It evokes Paris of the 1920s to a large degree in Cheryl Sparks' costumes, as well as choreographically in such specific terms as the city bus that bounces by at a couple of points. Urban traffic is among the few literal benchmarks of the 1928 work, memorialized forever in the precisely pitched taxi horns the composer called for.

But at the time Gershwin gave an interviewer only a vague outline of the work's progress, from the opening "gay section" (not in today's meaning of the word, of course), through a "rich blues with a strong rhythmic undercurrent," and on to a spell of homesickness, followed by a concluding episode in which the visitor's mood lifts and he's caught up once again in the City of Light's allure. The program note (not by Gershwin) accompanying the premiere got much more specific, down to the detail of placing the title character in a cafe sipping an anise-flavored liqueur.

How fortunate DK patrons are not to have anything so literal weighing down Hochoy's "American in Paris"! His imagination has other work to do with the piece. It's enough to have it keyed to the open gaze, curious temperament, and fleet energy of Brandon Comer's enactment of the title role. That is a sufficient center for the music, along with the sensory overload the American tourist is caught up in, represented by the troupe in shifting combinations.

A variation with three gendarmes exercised the capabilities of DK's men to the full; a section surrounding the visitor with Parisian femmes fatales added extra exhilaration. And an elegantly executed "blues" section, with its gorgeous trumpet tune, was basically a pas de deux sweetly ensnaring the tourist in the charms of a muse or a sort of local goddess, a spirit of the place embodied neatly and gloriously by Caitlin Negron. The subsiding of this episode in a couples ensemble as the recorded tuba noodles downward to a point of rest was enchanting,  particularly in the context of Laura E. Glover's lighting. After a recap of urban roar and sizzle, at the very end Comer's figure is isolated and winding down, tenderly and with a residual contentment, starting already to compose happy memories of the French capital.
Scheherazade and the Prince: To the rescue in the nick of time.

"Scheherazade" is more radically freed of its literary connections, despite opening and closing with a little girl (Shelby Crowe) reading the book for which the Sultana of the title is responsible, "A Thousand and One Nights." Hochoy  has liberated Scheherazade from the menace of the Sultan's selfish exploitation of women, the series of brides enjoyed and fatally discarded after each wedding night. Scheherazade's resourcefulness in surviving through the magic of storytelling is emphasized over her desperation to extend her life one night at a time.

As danced sublimely by Mariel Greenlee, Scheherazade is portrayed as being above the action, which is conceived with brightly arrayed dancers as her story ideas, subordinate to her mastery. That's reflected in a variety of lifts and lofty postures in which we see her. With a shift from abstraction to narrative, her mastery is put to the test in Hochoy's concept of a princess (Jillian Godwin) threatened by a witch and her minions, rescued after difficulties by Scheherazade's summoning of a prince on horseback (Timothy June).

The spectacle of Barry Doss' costumes enriched this representative tale. Again on the theme of verbal descriptions for music, it's helpful to remember that Rimsky-Korsakov, who wrote the symphonic suite of the same title, later withdrew the movement titles with their specific allusions to Arabian Nights tales.

"Nineteenth-century composers often pulled this stunt," D. Kern Holoman remarks tartly in his "Evenings With the Orchestra," "but once established such stories are hard to erase from the  collective memory." Hochoy has done a real service in effecting at least a partial erasure and substituting a scenario of his own that moves his dance agenda to the forefront. This is nowhere clearer than in the finale, with its vigorous rhythmic variety embedded into a whirling saltarello. Here the stamina and pinpoint coordination of the company were at their peak.

In the final scene, as the music subsides, Scheherazade gives a jeweled pendant from around her neck to the little girl.  In Hochoy's program note, it symbolizes "the magic of the imagination and the power of our dreams." I also see it as a corrective to the European story-ending formula, "and they lived happily ever after," in favor of Arab storytellers' more somber reminder, referenced at the end of "Dunyazadiad," John Barth's memorable story about Scheherazade's younger sister, that happy endings last only until inevitable death and dissolution — the universal fate.

"To be joyous in the full acceptance of this denouement," Barth writes,  "is surely to possess a treasure, the key to which is the understanding that Key and Treasure are the same." Thursday's performance convinced me that Dance Kaleidoscope's "Scheherazade" embodies this wisdom in a unique, visually stunning, and life-affirming manner.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]