The Tennessee Dance Theatre held its gala benefit Saturday night at the Sunset Studios, with eight dancers and two drummers performing three pieces by four choreographers. For all the cooks stirring the broth, the evening came across with one definable personality, which is quite an accomplishment. It bespeaks a company with a unique artistic spirit, a company that has been built with a consistent vision. Celebration was certainly warranted on this occasion.
The company is looking ahead to its future, having survivedsometimes tenuouslyboth hard times and good times in Nashville over the last 12 years. The artistic directors have wisely expanded the company repertoire to include other choreographers, rather than relying on reconstructions of neglected classics from the early modern period. The programming choices at TDT’s recent concerts have demonstrated this sagacity.
This is not to imply that Donna Rizzo and Andrew Krichels have resolved to bid us a quiet goodnight. To the contrary, “Dance Rhythms,” which they premiered Saturday night, was a dynamic piece that showcased the dancers’ daring. Cartwheels, flips, and leaps came out of nowhere, all performed with cheerful spontaneity. The choreography was set beforehand, but the instrumental backing consisted of improvised percussion by Sam Bacco and Kirby Shelstad. Because the music came as a surprise to the dancers, it lent a certain tension to the performance and gave an edge to the drummers, who became creators rather than simply accompanists. During one long duet, the dancers paused to listen, and it was obvious that a couple of them were really grooving to the rhythms. What torture! They could hardly wait to break out again and take full advantage of all that good dancing music.
Sonjé Mayo’s new piece, “Sins of Our Fathers,” was frightening in its intensity. The scene opened with white painted chairs all set in a row along the back of the stage. Four sets of couples sat in rigid symmetry, hands placed just so on knees and eyes staring straight ahead. It was a stark, geometric image of total conformity, painted in shades of black and white. The women were dressed in flowing black gowns with long sleeves and small lace bibs that set off the pallor of their faces, while the men wore black suits and starched white shirts.
As the couples danced, the men exerted more and more control over their partnersit was like watching the Promise Keepers run amok onstage. Each man manipulated his woman by placing one hand on the back of her neck. At first, it seemed to be a protective gesture, but it soon became apparent that the men’s fingers could close like pinchers on their partners’ vulnerable flesh.
With a flick of the wrist, systematic violence was used to direct the victims’ movementsand even their thoughts. When Elizabeth Lentz broke away, she dashed to the front of the stage, eyes rapturously focused toward some unknown goal. The other men hid their partners’ eyes to make it impossible for the women to experience, even vicariously, this one dancer’s brief moment of glorious freedom. When Lentz refused to heed her mate’s command to fall at his feet, she was forcefully expelled from the group.
Mayo’s choice of music, Dvorák’s “New World Symphony,” presented her with some problems. It forced her to overstate her case so that the choreography wasn’t drowned out by the booming melodrama of shifting tempos and volume. It may be out of fashion these days to say so, but sometimes less is more.
Mark Denby’s “Chaw’n, Sing’n, Walk’n, Iron’n and Cry’n, Pray’n, Danc’n” was hilarious fun. This little jewel has even improved since it was first premiered last fall; the company has made it thoroughly theirs. Denby’s flippant, funny, and funky style fits in exactly with the talents of the TDT ensemble.
Saimir Avdyli opened the piece, performing to Bill Monroe’s “Muleskinner Blues.” His devilish glee conveyed an obvious delight in meeting all challenges head-on, from rapid-fire windmill movements with his arms to undulating handstands that sensuously unwound in slow motion.
Best of all was Denby’s choreography to Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way.” Four women with big hair and curlers stood with blank faces in front of ironing boards. With deadpan comic abandon, they applied mascara, sighed, dreamed, and propped their elbows up on the ironing boardsbut didn’t get much ironing accomplished. Carri Barfield, Leah Chevalier, Andrea Hebert, and Elizabeth Lentz were just about perfect in their roles as housewives with yet another one due any day now.
In contrast, the Carter Family’s “Chawin’ Chewin’ Gum” made for a high-energy finale. The women’s ponytails flopped about as they bounced to and fro, with hands clasped ingenuously behind their backs and wads of gum stuffed in their mouths. Follow-the-leader, jump rope, London Bridge, all the games of yesteryear never looked so good as when Mark Denby reinvented them for the sophisticated audience’s delight.
Nashville, whether it recognizes it or not, can boast an arts company of international stature. The Tennessee Dance Theatre could go to France or New York and show them a thing or two. In fact, the company already hasand set the New York Times critic on her ear. With better support from the community, there would be no stopping them. This evening proved it.
A much-needed antidote
At TPAC on opening night of the musical Big, ice-cream cones were half-price during intermission, and children accompanied by an adult were admitted free. It was a fun occasionwhich is exactly what the audience needed. The building had just reopened after The Big Wind of ’98, and you could tell before the curtain opened that people were tense and tired. Everyone was subdued, even the kids, and some people gnawed anxiously at their lower lips, no doubt recalling the blown-out roofs, imploded office windows, and totaled cars of the last week.
Big was inspired by the movie of the same name. It takes the film’s original conceptbasically a one-liner about a kid granted his wish to be “Big!”and expands it in a thoughtful way. Contrary to expectations, the play does not center around a Tom Hanks look-alike who works too hard at being cute. Neither is it geared toward parents looking for family-values entertainment, nor are there any dysfunctional adults of the Peter Pan variety. Instead, author John Weidman focuses on the mentality of a child who sits on the cusp of adulthooda 13-year-old who must deal with issues beyond his ken. Ultimately, he learns what it means to be a man.
The lyrics, by Richard Maltby Jr., were especially clever, yet they were simple enough to resonate with young and old alike. The music, by David Shire, was seamlessly woven through dialogue and dramatic situations. Karma Camp’s choreography reached a high point in the old-fashioned routine in which short-skirted secretaries tap-danced atop a long typing table while power-suited executives pounded their feet on the floor alongside.
Unlike many Broadway touring productions that have recently come to Nashville, the leading performers were uniformly strong: good singers and actors all. In particular, Alex Brumel was a showstopper as Josh’s best buddy, with his big voice, boyish arrogance, and double gold chains that jingled from his empty wallet. Jacquelyn Piro played Susan, the “older” woman who initiates Josh into the mysteries of romantic love. She conveyed an air of sincerity and pathos in her song, “Little Susan Lawrence,” in which she nostalgically recalled her first love. Her character represented the yearning of the thirtysomething generation for a simpler time in their lives, when kids gave each other high-fives down on the street rather than back-stabbing each other in the executive suite. She and Jim Newman, who played Josh, made the moon light up with their duet “Stars,” a tender waltz with innovative accompaniment by clarinet and harp.
It’s hard to think of any musical that speaks to 13-year-old boys as well as to sophisticated adults, but Big succeeded in this regard. It certainly had enough vomit jokes to please most any male child, but luckily for the grown-ups, there were also some hilarious double-entendres that winged their way across the auditorium. By the time the audience members rose to grab their raincoats at the end of the evening, people were smiling. Some good ol’ fun was a great antidote to the tornado.
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