Friday, January 3, 2020

Dance Kaleidoscope displays perfect 2020 vision as it opens New Year with 'La Vie on Broadway'

It was fun to revisit the mixed messages about love and related struggles in "Piaf: A Celebration" as Dance Kaleidoscope put a jaunty cap on "La Vie on Broadway" Thursday night on Indiana Repertory Theatre's Upperstage.

"Piaf: A Celebration" was introduced by David Hochoy and DK at the 2011 Indy Fringe Festival, and was notably revamped for a much different stage and milieu in 2017, as it was zestfully repeated in Carmel at the Tarkington (Center for the Performing Arts).
Street scene: The troupe opens David Hochoy's  "Piaf: A Celebration."

A wry observer of her beloved Paris as well as a commentator on personal vicissitudes, Piaf sang her songs in a distinctive throaty voice, which often managed to sound both strained and nonchalant. This odd blend of qualities comes through in Hochoy's choreography, which draws upon Piaf's distinctive style wittily and insightfully.

The raucous comedy of "Bravo Pour le Clown," with the tossing about of large rag dolls and Jillian Godwin impersonating a central one of them, was delightful. Godwin, a past master of sharply defined rhythms and striking angularity, gets to dance as if she didn't have a bone in her body. The effect is drolly magical.

The company's stamp is evident from the start as Parisian mores are displayed in "La Goualante du Pauvre Jean." There's plenty of respect for the demotic origins of Piaf's art as the suite salutes the City of Light's sometimes seedy night life, full of half-hidden private soap operas and the haze of Gauloise cigarettes. Hochoy's way of honoring his musical sources while presenting a fresh vision of them is in full force here. Formality is mocked and celebrated in ballroom-dance parody before the set concludes with a return to the initial ensemble look for a brace of Piaf classics, "La Vie en Rose" and the triumphant defiance of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Pas."

Before intermission came the new work, with choreography divided between artistic director Hochoy and company member Stuart Coleman. The program book has wisely devoted a page to an interview with Coleman, who  explains his contributions to "Give My Regards To..." (The ellipsis, of course, stands for Broadway in the famous song by George M. Cohan). The interview also reflects Coleman's modesty, charm and esteem for both his material and his colleagues. Thursday night's intermission Q&A feature with Hochoy and Coleman also brought these qualities to the fore.

Marie Kuhns in "Burn" threatens to become a permanent memory.
Everything of Coleman's in "Give My Regards To..." was stunningly effective, embodying his ideas about the music and the drama behind it. The range was immense, from solo to ensemble, with a blend of small ensemble and serial solos in the rocking "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" (from "The Last Five Years"). Two pieces from "Hamilton" exemplify the spectrum within which Coleman seems to work comfortably. "The Room Where It Happens" is a dizzying exhibition of the company's strengths in mastering complex assignments, from revelatory mime to flashy technique.

Also from the Lin-Manuel Miranda hit musical is the bitter lament "Burn," set as a perfectly balanced solo for Marie Kuhns and danced with consummate skill.  She carried out Coleman's plan with the kind of controlled dramatic lay-it-all-on-the-line vividness for which the recently retired Mariel Greenlee was well-known. Signs that DK's legacy is robust despite the departure of highly regarded dancers are among the rare wide-world causes for encouragement as the 2020s begin.

"Give My Regards To..." concludes with Coleman's daring choreographic endorsement of the life-affirming "You Will Be Found." I say "daring" because Coleman risks an appearance of sentimental posing in the recurrent embraces he assigns the dancers. On reflection, I think this serves to celebrate the "Dear Evan Hansen" song directly and not be satisfied with an oblique treatment of its openheartedness. This kind of anthemic piece is an old staple of the Broadway musical, the archetype being "You'll Never Walk Alone" from "Carousel."  (I can almost hear a mash-up in my head of the two songs, but lack the skill and motivation to attempt one for the Rodgers and Hammerstein show's 75th anniversary.)

Speaking of classics,  to open "Give My Regards To..." Hochoy set a modern arrangement  of "O What  a Beautiful Mornin'" from "Oklahoma!" for a substantial part of the company. Here he shows his usual knack for alluding to a musical style without being literal about it or a song's lyrics. He's not the type of choreographer who muses: "How specific do I want to be with the line 'The corn is as high as an elephant's eye'?"  There's no mickey-mousing about his work, but there's no coasting, either, waiting for the next good idea to emerge. Occasional nods to prairie barn dances or a mounted cowboy's brief salute from the brim of his ten-gallon hat do the trick. Also impressive is the idealism and fervor of the solo he has made for Kieran King, who danced "Bring Him Home" in a manner that frankly moved me more than the song ever does in its "Les Miserables" context.

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

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