Sunday, June 3, 2018

'Appalachian Spring' highlights a varied Dance Kaleidoscope program

The ebullience of young love in "Appalachian Spring"
Putting on one of his mentor's most celebrated works with the company he has directed for 27 seasons adds further distinction to David Hochoy's tenure at the artistic helm of Dance Kaleidoscope.

The arrival of Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring" on the DK schedule has been justly heralded. The result, as seen Saturday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, was fulfilling and refreshing. The provenance of this ballet here is solid: Hochoy spent the '80s as a Graham dancer and rehearsal director, and continues the association on the faculty of the Martha Graham School.

The great choreographer's fascination with Americana would fade later in her career. In 1944, when her collaboration with Aaron Copland came to fruition, she was still creatively focused on American folkways and finding a dance language to blend the attitudes and postures she found there with symbolism that dominated her later work.

DK has staged Graham's work, bringing in Graham's costume design as well as the spare, angular set of Isamu Noguchi.  Jean Rosenthal's lighting is consistently open-air and expansive. The setting is an abstraction of 19th-century American life near the frontier.

The courtship and marriage of a couple named the Bride and the Husbandman is nurtured by the guiding spirit of the Pioneering Woman. The challenge to the idyllic romance comes from the itinerant Revivalist, severe and focused on the world to come. His rigor is softened by the amusing devotion of his four Followers, women outfitted virginally and moving with naive, girlish energy in a world parallel to the couple's.

Graham distrusted the American fondness for religious cults, including the Shakers from whom Copland borrowed "'Tis a Gift to Be Simple," subjecting it to subtle variations. This guardedness bears artistic fruit, however, as the Revivalist (played by Stuart Coleman in the performance I saw)  has a demonic solo of warning that gives the ballet dramatic spine. As the Followers, Emily Dyson, Marie Kuhns, Aleksa Lukasiewicz, and Missy Thompson made a cohesive, charming ensemble — a collective picture of the less dangerous side of religious enthusiasm.

As the Bride, Caitlin Negron appears in her farewell DK role.
In his spellbinding solo, the Revivalist is both fiercely counseling the couple on human depravity and representing the fate of human happiness always to be under threat. Coleman's portrayal, with its clutching gestures and outflung arms suggesting both accusation and piety, galvanized the piece's emotional core.

Yet its more pacific and loving gestures were equally well-defined. As the Bride, Caitlin Negron, making her last appearance with the company this weekend, conveyed a pervasive feeling of joyful adventurousness. It was a performance imbued with personality. Her Bride is sturdy in her resolve to make a fine new life with the Husbandman; the courtship is definitely a reciprocal affair. Timothy June played her partner, the kind of American archetype easily credited with building the country. As history that portrait is oversimplified; in dance, it works believably, especially when brought off this well.

Mariel Greenlee displayed a steadying force as the Pioneering Woman, standing for the optimism and patience of agricultural settlement. Graham's choreography mutes her opposition to the Revivalist, but clearly a polarity is established, and the Pioneering Woman has the upper hand. The dignity and built-in pauses of the character's movement depict a figure who is both engaged with the couple (the Bride in particular) and somehow above the battle.

Staged by Hochoy and Miki Orihara, "Appalachian Spring" is a high-water mark in Dance Kaleidoscope history. It is sure to be fondly remembered for a long time. Its difficulties are less flamboyant than much of the troupe's repertoire, but they require a chasteness of execution and a nobility that this cast fully supplied. Every gesture and view of the whole struck home.

Emotional teeter-totter: "Losing My Mind"
The first half presents audiences with an invigorated spectrum of other artistic approaches. To start with, Coleman brought to life a lyrical solo from Hochoy's Graham era, "Ave Maria" (1988). The familiar Bach-Gounod piece made for an attractive miniature from the choreographer's developmental period.

A more recent solo, set to Stephen Sondheim's impassioned song "Losing My Mind," shifted our attention to near the end of Hochoy's second decade as artistic director. A showpiece for Mariel Greenlee, who's concluding her 13th season with the company, the performance evoked the powerful response I felt when I saw the premiere in 2010. To convey anguish with such elegance is something rare. The choreography suits Greenlee's essential gifts of full dramatic presence yoked to flawless technique.

Those attributes came into play in the program's hardest-to-interpret piece, Stephanie Martinez's "Taking Watch," a two-year-old work to abrasive electronic/percussive music. A central episode had Greenlee in strenuous partnership with two or three men. There's lots of skidding and leaps and catches that end with the caught dancer upside down. The choreography moves back and forth from the brink of awkwardness. This was true of the piece as a whole, which spotlighted DK's most veteran dancer, Jillian Godwin, at the start and, in a mischievous solo coda, at the finish.

"Taking Watch" opens with a curiously watchful Godwin facing a wall of dancers seated at the edge of the stage with their backs to us. Though unmoving, their postures aren't rigid,  but open and at a slight angle. It's as though they are being watchful as well. When they move into action, they are constantly engaged in what looks like a blend of intricate maneuvers and free-for-all.  There's a
Puzzling pizazz: The enigmatic opening of "Taking Watch"
wealth of unusual arm and hand movements, as if coded messages were being exchanged. The cryptic element is sustained, but not for the sake of bafflement. At length, the audience is probably picking up clues while being schooled in the exhilaration of taking watch.

No enigmas fall across "Sing Sing Sing," another piece by a DK guest, Andre Megerdichian. Laura E. Glover's lighting and Guy Clark's costumes provide spectacular visual counterpoint to the propulsive riffs, tunes, and rhythms of the Benny Goodman classic. The version used largely excises the soloing that helped give the furious conclusion of the 1938 Carnegie Hall performance a lift into another dimension. Nonetheless, the heightened excitement of this big-band arrangement gets a worthy complement in choreography that both mocks and exalts jitterbugging.

The variety of interaction among the baker's dozen of dancers is astonishing. There's barely any division of the ensemble, though individual flourishes abound. An exception: a wonderful crosswise movement across the stage by three successive groups of dancers as the interpolation of "Christopher Columbus" gets under way. A motif that's repeated for the delightful curtain call is a collective let-your-backbone-slip posture with arms partly extended, hands dangling from floppy wrists. That's exactly what's called for: In dance above all other arts, all-out intensity miraculously can lend itself to looking like pure fun.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

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