Friday, February 10, 2017

Taking another little piece of your heart: Pop divas' appeal gets dance expansion in an evocative DK program

Dance Kaleidoscope lives up to its name in a particularly focused way with its current show, "Divas." There are choreographic interpretations of a kaleidoscope of female pop vocalists spread over a generously proportioned show.

Seen Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, "Divas" offers a welcome return visit to the short pieces workshopped at the Indy Fringe Festival last August. Each of the nine was created by a DK dancer in tribute to a different entertainer, as represented by one recorded song. The production's second half presents extended views of Janis Joplin (by artistic director David Hochoy) and Aretha Franklin (by Nicholas Owens), using their recordings of several songs each.

This should be a wildly popular show, if only because  memories of this music are so strong with so many people. I come at these recorded songs with faint familiarity, on the whole, and try to get as much enlightenment about the various styles and attractiveness of these 11 divas through what I see onstage. The attempt worked some of the time Thursday night.

Even so, it can fairly be said that popular art attempts to meet its audience much more than halfway. Its appeal must be immediate and visceral, and marketability is necessarily a value.  No kind of pop artist embodies these requirements better than the star "girl singer."

The problem with taking music that has decisively won over the public and interpreting it through dance is that the connection is already complete, because the pop product has done its job. Avoiding superfluity, the choreographer has to find room within a particular song for some kind of expression that adds beauty and energy to the song, and doesn't just accompany it  — or, even worse, simply recall it pleasurably for its fans, with some visual enhancement.

When I do not know the music, there's a kind of open doorway for me to enter into a dance interpretation of it. That's one advantage of ignorance. But it keeps coming up against the assertiveness of pop vocalism over the past 60 years, which seems to proclaim that everything worth experiencing in a piece of music is RIGHT HERE, and for all time. And so I wonder: "Is all the music has to say already there in what I'm hearing?"

The troupe works hard throughout the program, and there is nothing superfluous about their efforts from a performance standpoint. Energy meets energy: When Janis Joplin proclaims her neediness in "Cry Baby," Hochoy's  dance designs have three couples replicating the emotional struggle vividly.

Jillian Godwin in the Janis Joplin spotlight in DK's "Divas."
Joplin, apart from being a founding member of  "the 27 Club," represented during her short lifetime the perils of taking it to the edge. I like a little more repression in my performing artists, as long as the artistic expression is outstanding; in the Joplin department, for instance, I favor Scott over Janis.

Hochoy addresses Joplin's burning excessiveness, though he ends by celebrating positive effort ("Try Just a Little Bit Harder"). He gives the persona specificity in casting Jillian Godwin as a Janis stand-in, who threads pathos into her characteristic pizazz. She is gloriously costumed by Guy Clark, and presented onstage alone for "Me and Bobby McGee," with its hanging-on-for-dear-life coda, enhanced by Laura Glover's complementary lighting. Two songs set on the company bookend the new work. Especially admirable was the nice flow and contrast of foreground and background in "Move Over."

The ecstatic climax of Timothy June's "Enlightenment."
Owens' "Franklin" presented me immediately with one of those I-can't-get-past-the-music barriers. The choreography was zestfully responsive to the treatment of "You Are My Sunshine," but I find little genuine in this arrangement, which distorts the tune with an aggressiveness that runs counter to the lyrics. Owens' piece hits its stride in a setting for two couples (Caitlin Negron and Stuart Coleman, Emily Dyson and Phillip Crawshaw) of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman." By the time "Respect" came along two songs later, handclaps from the audience welled up, fortunately subsiding in order for an attractive company setting to make its impact. There was a welcome spaciousness in Owens' handling of large numbers of dancers I've sometimes missed in the past.

Renewing acquaintance with the nine short pieces by DK dancers was fun. My impressions from last summer are here. This time around, I found especially beguiling the use of gauzy shawls for the five women in Missy Trulock's "Edge of Seventeen" (Stevie Nicks), their exchanges so mutually supportive in an era when even more rampant misogyny than last summer pollutes the cultural atmosphere: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

More eloquent than I remembered it was Marte Osiris Madera's "Fragmented Dreams," set to Celine Dion's performance of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Tenderness without sentimentality ruled in a piece with no extraneous gestures, no
padding just because the tempo was slow. And there was the sparkle of Aleksa Lukasiewicz's dance to "Don't Rain on My Parade," with Barbra Streisand spitting out the lyrics and Stuart Coleman's choreography replicating her vocal jabs and uppercuts. And I can't bear to leave out the sweet little comedy of Timothy June's "Enlightenment," a full-hearted response to Shirley Bassey's "I Am What I Am." Four  costumers were involved in outfitting the dancers in a work of almost cinematic dazzle, with the dancers proving fully up to coming across as comedians.

The first time Janis Joplin appeared on my radar was a half-century ago when I went to see "Monterey Pop." She performed a blues cover that would have been interesting to see a Hochoy treatment of: "Ball and Chain." Though my interest in her proved to be short-lived, I was struck by the balance of reflective lyricism and scorching anguish in Joplin's performance. And as her last notes are swamped in festival applause, the camera focuses in on Mama Cass Elliott, mouthing "Wow!"

In "Divas," there was a similar haunting variety in "Surrender," an almost daring blend of concentration and dispersal of dancers in Mariel Greenlee's choreography to Nina Simone's singing of "Wild Is the Wind." Simone's enveloping phrasing and a huge tone that varies from operatic to gutbucket was mirrored in the delineation of passion — "its unique ability to transport and overwhelm," in the choreographer's words — that "Surrender" sets before us.

I'm not a huge Simone fan (again, that sort of devotion can get in the way if you're trying to focus on dance), but she has a symbolic importance to me that Maya Angelou has for a lot of other people. So, there's that. But there's also a certainty that Greenlee, with striking commitment to her vision, is meeting the audience halfway, but no further. The work thus lets you in, eliciting your own response to the theme rather than imposing one on you. At the same time, you're not having to fill in blanks. Everything is there, thanks to the dancers and the choreographer, ready for you.

In short, when it comes to "Surrender," I'm with Mama Cass: Wow!

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

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