Two important American singers are the foundation of Dance Kaleidoscope's summer reprise

From "Night and Day" to "What'd I Say," Dance Kaleidoscope brings back this weekend another of its inspired interpretations of American popular music.

"Ray & Ella" pays tribute to Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald, 20th-century musical stars with devoted followings. It feels right at home at Butler University's Schrott Center, where I saw Saturday night the first of two performances of the revival.

Ella's "Tea for Two" serves four just fine in DK's show.
There might be some overlapping of the singers' fan bases, but while Charles ignited the burgeoning self-awareness of both black and white youth in the 1950s by infusing rock 'n' roll with soul, Fitzgerald remained a major representative of the Great American Songbook — the swingingest in that category of singing. Both were influenced by jazz and capable of drawing upon its freewheeling spirit.

That spirit roams freely throughout both halves of the current show, which will be repeated today. "Ella" features artistic director David Hochoy's choreography, typically rich in ideas smoothly linked and blended. After intermission, "Ray" is principally guest choreographer Nicholas Owens' work, with additions by Hochoy. (Going out on a limb, I'm guessing "Till There Was You," a quartet for DK men, was Hochoy's creation. If I'm wrong, congratulations to Hochoy and Owens on successfully melding their styles for "Ray.")

With Laura Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes highlighting the emotional palette and vocal style of both singers,  each suite — set to durable recorded performances by the celebrated artists — will likely remain part of the audience's mental pictures of Fitzgerald and Charles for a long time to come.

Ella Fitzgerald knew how to set a romantic mood.
Hochoy's "Ella" had a pleasing rounded quality, beginning and ending lyrically. Fitzgerald's gift for setting a romantic mood was emphasized in the ballroom movement of "Night and Day" and furthered by the balletic expression of "Blue Moon." The women were in the full skirts and crinolines characteristic of the romantic repertoire.

That atmosphere was effectively interrupted by the blazing duo of Brandon Comer and Stuart Coleman in "Too Darn Hot." The piece was a fine illustration of Hochoy's gift for superimposing on a song a dizzying succession of ideas, never jerked into position but following one another coherently and delightfully. It was danced impeccably Saturday night. The artistic director's sense of humor bubbled up in a setting of "Tea for Two," delightfully cozy as danced by Noah Trulock and three women. The sculptural pose on the last note was all by itself a great tribute to Ella's vocal buoyancy.

Angular movement came fittingly to the fore with a women's trio, "Cry Me a River," picking up cues from the bluesy interplay of Fitzgerald's voice and a solo electric guitar. The thrusting and strutting vocabulary was expanded upon in Hochoy's inspired take on Ella's scatting talent, captured here in a concert version of her perennial vehicle for wordless improvisation, "Lady Be Good." The company was presented in lickety-split ecstasy before the calming finale, "With a Song in My Heart."

Ray Charles painted with a broad palette.
"Ray" had the troupe almost constantly evolved in huge expenditures of energy, ending with the long version of "What'd I Say." Beginning with some understated twitching and foot-tapping, the company moved into a crescendo of convulsive joy. Then, with an abrupt switch of lighting leaving not much more than the spandex glow of briefly inert bodies visible, the call-and-response resumption of the tune took over.

Owens' choreography sometimes strikes me as too busy, but in this piece, physical nuance would be beside the point. Still, it strikes me that "Ray" might have benefited from fewer full-ensemble numbers, despite Charles' rootedness in the communal exuberance of the black church. "Ray" could have used more pure charm on the order of the Caitlin Negron and Phillip Crawshaw duet to "Hallelujah, I Love Her So."

Emotional rescue: "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'"
"Eleanor Rigby" seemed cluttered, though the idea of representing "all the lonely people" by using a lot of them makes sense. In any case, Charles' version spoils the song by turning Father McKenzie into a kind of narrator confiding to the singer about the loneliness he sees all around him. The Lennon-McCartney original is pretty clear that the priest is among the victims.

For a better exposition of solitude's poignancy, "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'" took the palm, as danced by Comer, Mariel Greenlee, and Justin Sears-Watson. A sense of humor came through in "Mess Around," and some of that feeling would have been germane in "Hit the Road, Jack," especially to accompany Charles' fadeout pleading at the end. But perhaps I hear that song

That's the hazard of a show like this, when preconceptions of famous singers and their songs can be difficult even for expert choreography to dislodge. "Ray & Ella" nonetheless does a pretty good job of it, especially to the degree that it vigorously polishes the Charles and Fitzgerald icons.

[Production photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]


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