Friday, January 10, 2014

Dance Kaleidoscope starts the New Year off to the beat of Gershwin

"An American in Paris": Brandon Comer and Caitlin Negron
"American Rhapsody" is the blended title of Dance Kaleidoscope's first program of 2014, reflecting David Hochoy's interpretation of two of George Gershwin's evergreen long-form compositions: "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American in Paris."

Mariel Greenlee in Hochoy's "Farewell"
Thursday night's preview performance showed the three works (the other being Hochoy's 1988 "Farewell," set to "Aria: Cantilena" from Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5") to be in good shape, considering that the troupe's Indiana Repertory Theatre performance home was closed Monday and Tuesday this week, thanks to the snow and cold.

"An American in Paris"  is a tone poem often praised for its insouciant combination of an aural picture postcard of life in the French capital between the world wars and one nameless, representative American's reaction to what he experiences on a visit there.

Hochoy's choreography grapples cleverly with the score's richness and its colorful weaving together of tunes and rhythmic figures that lean toward a mood of upbeat excitement. The American of the title is largely personified by DK's Brandon Comer. The rest of the troupe serves to flesh out the Parisian scene — the gendarmes, the boulevardiers, the coquettes and matrons along the Champs Elysees, the bouncing passengers on a city bus.

Gershwin's tone-painting of the City of Light, conspicuous at the beginning and end and punctuated by the first symphonic use of taxi horns, is well-represented by touches of realism in the choreography. And when the American encounters a Vamp in a red dress (Caitlin Negron) and the diffuse energy becomes more erotically charged, Hochoy has set upon Comer a fluid transition that the dancer expertly manages.

The work's languid trumpet tune gives the occasion for an expansive, sparkling Negron-Comer duet, but perhaps the high point for me was the ensemble outburst that followed, ushered in by rumbling saxophones. Its abstract, roiling energy made for a good contrast to the more literal scene-painting of the opening and closing episodes.

If I missed something in the new work, it may have to do with a different notion of what "An American in Paris" is all about. I hear more nostalgia, loneliness and homesickness in the course of the piece than Hochoy seems to feel. Comer's remarkable stamina and joy was fun to watch, but it was all in the service of a very sunny interpretation of the music.

This Hochoy-Comer American doesn't seem to nurse the slightest regret; his longing for the Vamp is never shadow-flecked. When one of his Paris experiences vanishes, whether abruptly or slowly, he is smilingly ready for the next one to come along. That's a strong feature of the original's emotional message, but it's not the only one.

The revival of "Rhapsody in Blue" (2006) reflects a more nuanced approach to Gershwin's music. It was a feast for the eyes, particularly when the artfully patched, tight-fitting costumes gave way to dazzling ballroom attire  — a blue riot of swirling dresses and tailcoats — for the big romantic tune everyone thinks of first when they think of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Hochoy uses the jazz-band version of the score —  a raw and more angular piece than the silken full-orchestra version  most concertgoers know. He fashions compact solos in three places when the piano is heard alone. As the last one goes into a rapid-fire repeated-note pattern, the ensemble takes over with almost feisty aplomb.

Ensemble flair and vigor worthy of the original: "Rhapsody in Blue"

It seemed to me that Hochoy is responding to this work's trailblazing cross-genre cheekiness, channeling the excitement the composer and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra aroused in 1924 by bringing a jazz-based composition into the concert hall. The foregrounding of Liberty Harris and Timothy June in this basically ensemble piece was well-managed, and Hochoy's high spirits and sense of humor cane through in the dancers' performance.

"Farewell" comes from Hochoy's pre-DK days with the Martha Graham company. Its lyrical, introspective nature made for a beautiful contrast with the two Gershwin works; Hochoy's program-building knack remains unassailable.
It has the intimacy of chamber music, with the principal focus on the female dancer (Mariel Greenlee) in representing the pain of loss, with two male dancers (Timothy June and Zach Young) lending fleeting but genuine support, as well as suggesting its withdrawal through changed circumstances.

The music's interlude, with the solo singing of the Portuguese text in the arrangement with guitar, brought out the clear Martha Graham influence on the young Hochoy. The solo's sharp angles and abrupt movement suggested both vulnerability and resistance. In "Aria (Cantilena)"'s last section, with the resumption of the wordless soprano line (this time hummed), Greenlee touchingly reflected an elegant acceptance of the unwanted but necessary goodbye.


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