Friday, June 2, 2017

It's game on for Dance Kaleidoscope demonstrating 'dance is a contact sport'

The late Frank DeFord might have appreciated the tack Stephanie Martinez takes in "False Start, Pass Interference" in paying tribute to the American obsession with professional sports.
Animated commentary and macho action are central to "False Start, Pass Interference"

Although DeFord knew the ins and outs of games from the athletes' point of view as well as anyone, I suppose, his weekly commentaries on NPR's "Morning Edition" often waxed eloquent on the place of sports in our culture, the maximized hoopla and sometimes frenetic fan energy surrounding the games themselves.

The guest choreographer's elaborate interpretation of our love affair with pro sports makes up the second half of Dance Kaleidoscope's season-ending program being presented now through Sunday at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

"Dance Is a Contact Sport" is the inarguable title for the program, whose first half consists of two revivals of short pieces by artistic director David Hochoy, plus "Catapult," the 2015 work of another guest choreographer, Kiesha Lalama.

With a soundscape nearly as complicated as the choreography, Martinez and two assistants (Taylor Mitchell and Cole Vernon) have come up with a spectacle of sports mania ranging across TV commercials, marching-band routines, the arcane garble of broadcast commentators, macho posturing, and the apparent arbitrariness of rules and procedures when they meet the realities of millionaires investing all their physical and mental energy on a game — all buoyed immeasurably by fan interest.

It's interesting that Martinez has largely eschewed the frequently repeated analogies with dance, particularly ballet, that broadcasters and reporters are tempted to indulge in. Often slow-motion imagery, or a lucky still photo capturing a moment of accidental (rooted in practice) grace, will be held up as an example of balletic poise. In the moment of action as seen by fans, however, this analogy barely exists. True, one notices it occasionally in real time; I've often found the well-executed double play in baseball capable of providing a frisson of choreographic pleasure, especially watching the second baseman, after he catches the ball fielded by the shortstop (usually), step on the bag ahead of the runner barreling toward him from first base, leap and pivot so as not to get spiked, then rifle the ball to the first baseman. Ta-da!

Anyway, in addition to the comedy of Brandon Comer's seated, gesticulating energy as a broadcaster (to a soundtrack either of skillful double-talk or perhaps real talk played backwards), there were repeated respites from full-company dashing about, mimicking routine gestures from various team sports. These respites often took the form of couples vignettes, most touchingly the long duet for Mariel Greenlee and Stuart Coleman that found many-splendored ways to explore the alienation that spectator sports can engender in intimate relationships. The interruption of the man's focus on a sports broadcast plays out in various ways of joining and separation, indicating that there can be more connections between the erotic and the athletic than it may be  convenient to admit: Such interactions are taken to a level of comic intensity by several other couples after Greenlee and Coleman explored the more poignant aspects.

The agony and the ecstasy, the noise and the nonsense in sports as consumed by Americans are elaborated in the cheekiest possible manner by an expanded DK troupe under Martinez's guidance. The amplified rock anthems that often stir up and sustain fan enthusiasm are certainly not neglected, and the dancers get to shout raucously from time to time and sing for all their worth. The solo cameo of a distorted pop version of the national anthem was particularly droll Thursday night.

The concert's first half by no means seemed tame in comparison; it's just that each of the three works was more self-contained.
An excerpt from "First Light," Hochoy's initial work as DK artistic director in 1991, is set to John Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," a popular work by the most-performed living American composer. It was recently played in concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The challenge was to invent phrasing for the eight dancers that reflected the music's variety, which pretty much lacks phrasing, given the motoric, minimalist-related style of early Adams.

Jillian Godwin and Zach Young (his DK swan song) in "Crazy."
Changes in ensemble texture seemed to suggest points where the interplay between the five women and three men could give the choreography some independence and yet feel responsive to the music. Cheryl Sparks' costumes and Laurea E. Glover's lighting lent the dancing a certain flow that Adams' score lacks, though it is bracingly cohesive. And that quality was picked up on by all the production elements, making "First Light" a memorable milestone worth the revival.

Following up was a briefer piece, both tender and conflicted, set to Patsy Cline's country classic "Crazy." The pas de deux, from 2014's "Deep in the Heart of Country," was danced by senior troupe member Jillian Godwin and Zach Young (who is retiring from DK). In this case, the music's phrasing is conspicuous and suggestive of both the breaks and the connections in the song that can readily be extrapolated choreographically  This is a vividly imagined work, danced with clarity and emotional engagement, that concisely represents so much of what goes into many intimate relationships.

"Catapult" opens with no movement and no music. The company stands facing out at a 45-degree angle, enveloped in stage fog. As it lifts, the music starts, and the dancers' first movements are all gesture — hands and arms — as the bodies stay rooted to their spots. This creates anticipatory tension. When movement becomes general and all-encompassing, the tension remains, though the mood is one of exhilaration. There is a wealth of overlapping flops and fades, surges and retreats, as the percussive accompaniment is unrelenting.

Thursday's performance was riveting. I liked the way the piece projected soloists and small groups into displays of individualism that were then gradually absorbed by the group. When not thrust into galvanic action, the troupe as a whole would be looking on, bobbing and shaking, as if barely in restraint before the next catapulting challenge. This piece succeeded in making its pounding pace free of settling into a mere groove. Surprises kept popping up. All the space seemed constantly occupied, yet the cumulative effect was free of clutter. Despite the quirky charm of "False Start, Pass Interference," "Catapult" was the highlight of the program for me.

[Photo by Crowe's Eye Photography]

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