Sunday, August 6, 2017

Tributes to a couple of entertainers with indelible auras: Dance Kaleidoscope's "Frere Jacques" and "Piaf: A Celebration"

Marie Kuhns, Stuart Coleman, and Missy Thompson in "Piaf Plus."
The expressive range of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel in their songs makes responding in another art form to the words as well as to the music a particular challenge.

In a brief run at the Tarkington (Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts), Dance Kaleidoscope revives a couple of artistic director David Hochoy's most compact, mercurial recent pieces. Seen on Saturday night, "Piaf Plus" suited well a company with an intriguing blend of veteran expertise and continued receptivity toward new talent.

In "Piaf: A Celebration," which I first saw in 2011 when DK was dipping its skilled feet into the Indy Fringe Festival pool, what was especially remarkable was the masterly flow Hochoy imparted to a succession of songs associated with Piaf. The order of the songs served the choreography particularly well. The blend of humor, sentimentality, violence and panache seemed to hang improbably on a single thread. The mixture was beautifully supported by Cheryl Sparks' costumes, moving across a spectrum from goth severity to a kind of wary, formal joie-de-vivre.

A couple of duos stood out for me, indicating some of the bittersweet outlook on life with which Piaf struggled to keep bitterness from overwhelming her. Disease, addiction, love troubles — all shadowed the vulnerable Parisian, rooted in her mother's abandonment of her and subsequent upbringing in a brothel, on into an adulthood marked by three marriages and many love affairs. We saw this tension in Emily Dyson and Timothy June's dancing in "Hymne a l'Amour," and with a couple's internal rapport ratcheted up into violence and rejection in "Mon Dieu," danced with exquisite definition amid angular postures by Jillian Godwin and Cody Miley.

The whole suite is accurately labeled a celebration of the hallowed French singer. The flourishing movement that amplifies the main theme of dogged perseverance in the finale, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," convinces us that Piaf indeed regretted nothing. Leading up to that point, and prefaced by the international hit "La Vie en Rose," the fragile elegance of the troubled chanteuse moves to the fore. Ballroom dancing is evoked, but with the women's costumes signaling something more elemental than social graces. The punishing gestures of Apache dancing, explicit earlier in the suite, continued to hover.

There were subtle suggestions of Piaf's vocal quality — its hard edge, an intense vibrato, a penetrating timbre always on the verge of moaning — in the choreography. The predominance of numbers for the company projected a whole urban world out of personal pain. There was maniacal comic relief in "Bravo pour le Clown!," with life-size rag dolls amusingly tossed and manipulated in echo of the rough handling of a floppy real-life counterpart. Otherwise, the gloom-tinged poignancy of Piaf's art provided the keynote to Hochoy's inspiration.
Mariel Greenlee in "Frère Jacques"' "Marieke"

The emotional resonance of the show's first half, "Frère Jacques," was more manifest to the audience because the Belgian artist's songs were used in their English translations. The home-base audience is thus able to appreciate the wit and wordplay, as well as the scene-painting, of Jacques Brel as expressed in ten of his songs. Also enhanced by Laura E. Glover's lighting and Sparks' costumes, "Frère Jacques" occupies a more variegated milieu. The heart-tugging quality is more insistent and less veiled than with Piaf, yielding more buoyant dancing.

A subdued piece like "Desperate Ones," given measured restraint by Emily Dyson, Mariel Greenlee, and Caitlin Negron, provided a rare point of introspection. The social whirl is often the focus of Brel's tart observations, nicely fleshed out by "Marathon," an amusing evocation of the marathon dance-contest craze. The anthemic "If We Only Have Love" brought some sculptural steadiness at the end, following the dizzying acceleration of "Carousel." These were two company numbers that seem to compete in the memory with outstanding solos: Stuart Coleman's comic virtuosity with fantasy flair in "Jackie" and Greenlee's lofty, place-specific lament for lost love in "Marieke."

Both those showcases had the star quality that has helped sustain Dance Kaleidoscope over years of personnel changes, some of them rather sudden. Yet the bedrock of that star quality continues to be the company itself, with its storehouse of ensemble richness gathered and nurtured by its artistic director.

[Photos by Freddie Kelvin and Chris Crawl]

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