Thursday, September 16, 2021

Having been somewhat submerged by pandemic constraints, Dance Kaleidoscope celebrates 'Breaking the Surface'

Returning to its home stage for live performances, Dance Kaleidoscope is prepared again to bring its virtuosity to the main stage of Indiana Repertory Theatre as the troupe makes a season-opening splash with "Breaking the Surface."

Seen at a dress rehearsal Wednesday night, the program struck me as a gathering of choreographic responses to music that treats repetition as both idiom and structure in the first half and as a polarity worth challenging in the second. Performances run tonight through Sunday.

Coincidentally reading a book of essays by Thornton Wilder, I'm struck by his robust defense of Gertrude Stein, an avatar of linguistic modernism. That literary iconoclast is still remembered for "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" and for her consistent, often harder-to-unpack opposition to prose conventions. Literature had become overburdened with description, she warned us, and written language was stifling how to represent ways we really think and behave, instead refurbishing direct experience to suit rhetorical norms. We need to be brought back to how life-giving seeming to repeat ourselves may be.

Light and dark and mystery: "Sneaky Pete"

"Now listen!" Stein once thundered when asked about that "rose"  line. "I'm no fool. I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a...is a...is a....'" I think the music and movement of both "Chairman Dances" and "Sneaky Pete" serve to amplify Stein's "conviction that repetition is a form of insistence and emphasis that is characteristic of all life, of history, and of nature itself," as Wilder put it.

What Hochoy does in this  revision of his 1998 "Chairman Dances" (to John Adams' outtake from the opera "Nixon in China") is to ceremonialize repetition. "If a thing is really existing there can be no repetition," Stein wrote in her signature cryptic manner, nailed down by her spare punctuation. "Then we have insistence insistence that in its emphasis can never be repeating, because insistence is always alive and if it is alive it is never saying anything in the same way because emphasis can never be the same...."

"Chairman Dances" is an indisputably alive work. In Wednesday's performance, its insistence was as pure as its chaste costuming, light and white (or close to it). The bearing of the dancers at the start presents them as avatars of repetition raised to a Steinian level of insistence:  Heads raised slightly, each arm up and out to the side and bent at the elbow, held back so that the torso is steadily thrust forward.

Like Adams' music, typically less strict about the minimalism with which it was associated, Hochoy's choreography varies the emphasis alluringly. Adams shifts his insistence/repetition through episodes that for a while suggest ballroom dancing (Adams subtitled his work "Foxtrot for Orchestra"). Hochoy follows suit with one couple offering sweeping contrast to the other dancers' variations on the initial ceremoniousness. There is a breathtaking processional, climaxed by a group  lift and supported  drop for one of the women, ending in a tableau burst of radiance, a typically effective touch in Laura E. Glover's lighting design. The work still maintains its formal "is a....is a...is a..." stature — with the helpful caveat that dance is inherently other than how we go around moving "in daily life."

Natalie Clevenger is hands-down Sneaky Pete.


Guest choreographer Clawson's "Sneaky Pete," originally created for Giordano Dance Chicago,  carries staging credits for Joshua Blake Carter and Ethan Kirschbaum. The music runs in a deeper, more intense channel than Adams', but its peculiar insistence is keyed to the drive of the choreography's witty narrative. One black-clad dancer opens the work soundlessly skulking down an aisle shining a flashlight. Natalie Clevenger plays the title character, and a determined search, soon focused on a woman in red (Emily Dyson), plays out among a turbulent ensemble.

 Like Sneaky Pete, crouching and hiding their lower faces into the crook of their elbows, the dancers delightfully blur the distinction between the sought and the searching. Who is after whom gradually becomes clear, and eventually the title character is trapped in the center.  The costumes seem to enfold various degrees of shadow within them. The lighting, adapted by Glover from the original, imitates the effect of streetlights shining through Venetian blinds. The film-noir atmosphere is an indelible treat for the eyes as Clawson's restless scenario plays out like a case for a private eye. But our own eyes solve the case under the choreography's savvy encouragement.

Stingy-brim fedoras cap a zesty part of "Feeling Good."

After intermission comes a welcome contrast to the Steinian insistence. "Feeling Good" is a suite set to Michael BublĂ© recorded performances. An interpreter of protean range, from romantic balladeer to sophisticated man-about-town, BublĂ©  has a zest and flow to his interpretations that put him in line with the great crooners of the past. Choreography to seven of his songs by Hochoy and associate artistic director Stuart Coleman covers the full range of the company's skills, including its adeptness in solos, duos, and trios. 

The choreographers share a vivid sense of humor and a love of happy endings that both surprise and satisfy. The latter gift couldn't have been better illustrated than by the partnership of Marie Kuhns and Cody Miley in "You Don't Know Me." The  dancers concisely convey the tension of misunderstandings and misinterpretations between lovers, right down to a final break that turns out not to be final after all. Singleness of mind among lovers is impersonated by the nobility of Paige Robinson's portrayal of promising oneself only the best in "When I Fall in Love": "It will be forever," as the song's next phrase declares, and the piece delivers on that promise for all involved.

Contrasting love's satisfaction with loneliness in "Young at Heart" pitted  Coleman's thoughtful embodiment of isolation against the bliss of couples. The finale, "Feeling Good," encapsulates the verve of Dance Kaleidoscope in the aggregate, with the current young company extending a legacy that has always been well advanced by its predecessors. 

Elaborate stagings with a touch of spectacle have long been a way to climax a DK show and shed light in retrospect on deeper, more narrowly focused work, all brought off with the same panache. "Breaking the Surface" is a three-part demonstration of the virtues of insistence, whether repetition is at the core or not.

[Photos by Lora Olive]

 



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