Moving Together 

Artists collaborate on dance piece that asks an eternal question

Artists collaborate on dance piece that asks an eternal question

What Then?

Presented by Tennessee Dance Theatre

7 p.m. June 24 at Centennial Park

For information, call 248-3262

On Saturday, June 24, Tennessee Dance Theatre and The Nashville Symphony will premiere an unusual new production, ”What Then?,“ that calls for the collaboration of many minds and many hands. Jazz musician Royel Wooten composed the luscious original score on a synthesizer of his own invention, while cellist Paul Brantley arranged the orchestration. Emelyne Bingham conducts, and Jackie Welch is the narrator. Last, and certainly not least, in this rich collaboration stands choreographer Sonjé Mayo, who adds her own interpretation to the artistic whole and enables the performance to spring to life.

”What Then?“ is a woman’s contemplation of life after death. When confronted with the ultimate question—what comes next?—her emotions range from exhilaration to denial to self-sacrifice to acceptance. ”When the Great Book is opened,“ Welch asks, ”what then? What then?“

The work begins in solemn stillness with dancers standing all in a row, heads bowed. Then the performers break into dynamic spirals moving about the stage. Wooten’s music is voluptuous, a surging tidal wave that states the theme, then ripples through its variations. At one point, a dancer is picked up by two men, her arms and body forming a cross. As the men lift her across the stage, she runs along the bent backs of the other dancers who kneel before her. She falls and collapses into the womb position. ”What then?“ the narrator asks again.

The piece builds to a haunting, ritualistic climax as performers clap and duck about as if confronting fearful spirits. Wooten’s music challenges the dancers with irregular rhythms inspired by Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. In the final pose, dancers withdraw and step back to the original line. As they take their bows, everyone looks exhausted, as dazed as if they have truly come back from the dead.

Sometimes too many cooks really can spoil the soup, but not in this instance. Many people deserve credit for this collaboration, which should make for a compelling evening when the work is performed for free in Centennial Park on Saturday. Chief among them are Wooten and Mayo. Best known as a member of Bela Fleck’s Flecktones, the former reveals himself to be an original and highly sensuous voice for the dance, his musical composition flowing like liquid mercury. The intensity of Mayo’s choreography is reminiscent of the great Doris Humphrey’s ensemble pieces, in which no one stars and everyone works together in unison, so in synch that even their breathing is uniform. That’s a perfect metaphor for the piece itself, which succeeds through the multiple efforts of many equally talented contributors.

Spirits rising

Last weekend, Tennessee Dance Theatre premiered another new piece, Ghosts of the Civil War, choreographed by Donna Rizzo and Andrew Krichels. It is perhaps the local company’s most ambitious work to date, a collection of narratives that seek to contend with the devastation, both physical and emotional, wrought by the war between the states.

Elke Schwarz was touching as the nurse who comforts the wounded as they lay dying. In an elegiac scene that evoked the horror of frozen bodies covered with snow, the dancers lay buried under a huge white drop cloth. Slowly, methodically, Schwarz gathered the giant shroud to herself, where she stood twisted in its folds. An arm, a leg, a head poked out here and there; she washed one limb, she patted another, she tenderly touched a wound to her cheek while the lyric strains of Franz Schubert’s ”Song Without Words“ played deep in the background.

Equally effective was the choreography for a duet between Carri Barfield and Saimir Avdyli. Barfield played a young wife who dreams of her husband at the very moment of his death. She recalls his touch on her body and gradually succumbs to the memory. Barfield was able to convey passionate desire tinged with an exquisite eroticism that was all the more powerful due to its restraint.

TDT artistic director Krichels compares the act of choreography to that of cooking, Italian-style: The food is good the first day, he insists, but tastes better on the days following. Ghosts of the Civil War is a solid, moving work, but it has great potential to improve over time, as the choreographers tinker with the seasoning. Currently the piece suffers from a glacial pace and a lack of dynamic contrast—but an elegy need not be a tragic monotone of muted energy. Even Shakespeare sent in the clowns when Hamlet slowed down the action with his heavy-handed philosophizing.

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