Tennessee Dance Theatre held its third annual bash at the Ryman Auditorium last Saturday night. It was big doings with a little help from a lot of friends: Country singer Lynn Anderson appeared with fiddler Wanda Vick in “Chaw’n, Sing’n, Walk’n.” Denice Hicks narrated “Fair and Tender Moments.” David Schnaufer played an original composition on the dulcimer, and Knoxville concert pianist Wendel Werner performed a Gershwin medley. And, oh yes, there was also a guest appearance by a real, live snake, which writhed and wriggled about TDT co-artistic director Donna Rizzo’s shoulders. The five pieces on the bill were choreographed by four different artists, reflecting the variety of viewpoints that represents Tennessee Dance Theatre’s hallmark style. Even so, the evening’s diverse fare was more or less united by the company’s dedication to the presentation of Southern themes.
Rizzo’s colleague, Andrew Krichels, choreographed the first piece, “Misplaced EleganceMoods of Gershwin,” which consisted of quirky vignettes set to popular Gershwin tunes. In “I Got Rhythm,” a trio of male dancers utilized Werner’s piano as the fulcrum for a series of wide-legged leaps. The talented pianist did not lose his professional aplomb as one dancer hopped onto the grand piano, jogged across it, and dove right off again. One at a time, the others followed, running hard to keep up the pace. The piece was a jazzy show-opener, filled with snappy poses and quick-time double-takes.
Rizzo and Krichels collaborated on an evocative new piece, “Fair and Tender Moments,” inspired by Lee Smith’s novel Fair and Tender Ladies. Donna Rizzo sat in an old Tennessee rocker, ruminating on memories and writing down her recollections, extracts of which were read aloud by narrator Hicks in the character of Ivy Rowe. Bathed in a warm, rosy light, Rizzo rocked almost without cease, a beatific smile on her face. Her back-and-forth motions were echoed by six other dancers while the dramatic action was underscored by Hicks’ voice.
For example, when the narrator, recalling her beloved, confessed, “I’m on fire,” the whole stage filled up with galloping lads and their partners, all in the throes of passion. The ending of the piece seemed a bit abrupt, though, as the dancers were forced into a symmetrical pose that was imposed rather than developed organically out of the dramatic situation. But Rizzo, as the main character, conveyed the path from youth to old age with great intensity. Indeed, she is a wonderfully talented dancer, with the ability to command attention even while sitting or standing motionless in total silence. It is a gift that I have only seen in the person of Martha Graham, who in her 70s could hold an entire audience with a simple wave of the hand.
Rizzo and Krichels performed together in Rizzo’s brilliant “Following Signs,” a piece inspired by the traditional East Tennessee practice of snake-handling. Rizzo’s depiction of ecstatic trance dance was done with serious artistic devotion and without an ounce of sensationalism. She began the ritual slowly and purposefully, stomping her high-button shoes to the sweet sounds of David Schnaufer’s dulcimer. After Krichels, cast as the preacher, blessed her, she was touched by the holy spirit. Her face uplifted in ecstasy, her limbs began to twitch, and she became possessed. When she picked up the snake, it was shocking to see how tenderly she lifted it to her breast and how sinuously the beast writhed across her belly. As the snake continued to wrap itself around Rizzo, its movements only served to increase the dancer’s ecstatic frenzy. It was a chilling moment as spirituality became conflated with sensuality.
Sonje Mayo’s “Sins of Our Father” has gained in focus and dramatic intensity since it first premiered last springand it was plenty powerful in the first place; its statement about patriarchal politics packs an emotional punch. The three male characters control their female partners’ movements by pinching the women on the napes of their necks. When dancer Cari Benfield breaks away, however, the other two women attempt to follow her. The men respond by pushing, pulling, and pummeling them into submission, until, bent and bowed, the women return to their places. Mayo’s stark new ending, only recently added, shows the rebellious Benfield defiantly ripping off her white lace collar and literally letting down her pulled-back hair. As she stares out at the audience, the others move away and shun her. The choreographer implies that the only way for the woman to gain her freedom is to go into exile.
In contrast, Mark Dendy’s “Chaw’n, Sing’n, Walk’n, Iron’n, and Cry’n, Pray’n, Dancin’ ” seems to have lost focus since it premiered last fall. The choreographer devised the piece as high camp, a hilarious send-up of country-music and “white trash” stereotypes, complete with big-haired women chewing gum, talking on the telephone, and dancing over, around, and through their ironing boards. But the charismatic presence of Grammy Award-winning singer Lynn Anderson tended to overshadow the dancers, turning them into a mere back-up group.
What’s more, Anderson’s persona clashed with the choreographer’s farcical intent. This tension was at its most disconcerting in the final scene, in which Anderson earnestly sang a gospel tune as the choreographer mocked preachers and churchgoers, and even used a dancer to depict Jesus on the cross. The jokes in this last part rang hollow, particularly coming on the heels of Rizzo’s devoutly reverent “Following Signs,” which explores the religious experience of the same regional/ socioeconomic group.
The evening’s program offered a little something for everyone, but sometimes the messages got caught in diverse cross-currents and contradicted each other. Even so, the five pieces worked together to demonstrate this tiny company’s broad emotional range and dramatic power. Tennessee Dance Theatre proved, once again, its versatility and high artistic purpose. No wonder they have so many good friends in Nashville to lend them a helping hand.
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