IN: Reviews

A Pleasurable Extravaganza


by  Nora Paul

The chorus as cheerleading hens in Foxy (Liz Linder photo)

“Folktales, Fables & Feasts” brought together the Kairos Dance Theater (9 female dancers) and Renaissance Men (7 singers) with a chamber orchestra of 18 players for a 90-minute concert of song and dance at the Tsai Performance Center at Boston University Sunday afternoon. DeAnna Pellecchia, director of KAIROS, and the company’s dancers past and present, choreographed to compositions by Orff, Stravinsky, Dave Eggar, and Eric Raynaud.

The Renaissance Men (TTTBaBaBaB) began by singing Mozart’s Magic Flute overture in a clever arrangement a cappella by Albert Lortzing (best known as the very popular composer of Czar und Zimmermann and other singspiels in the 1840s). Lortzing’s original German scat syllables might have been lost on our audience, so the RenMen replaced them with meows, clucks and quacks that were entirely successful; all the wit in Mozart’s repeated-note bounces came through expertly and well-tuned.

The stage then opened up for a dance number, Seagulls and Phoenixes by DeAnna Pellecchia and her team, with an electronic background by Eric Raynaud. This lasted about 15 minutes, with interesting choreography and especially light-and-shadow illumination. The taped sound had some refreshing seaside sounds, gull cries and waves breaking, along with a steady static that most closely resembled an LP record stuck in one groove, with a long tape loop of cimbalom explosions superposed. Phrases with recurring motifs, not always in the same order, evoked a blurred sense of repetition.

Benjamin Britten’s Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard for three male voices with piano retraces the lurid, blood-drenched story of adultery and vengeance with calm, restrained violence for about ten minutes, with subdued and sometimes creepy music. Britten’s text differs from the easily accessible version (from 1658) in The Viking Book of Folk Ballads edited by Albert Friedman, but is no less painful. Kinsley’s Oxford Book of Ballads, no. 44, has “Little Mousgrove and the Lady Barnet,” with a different ending

Many of the three pieces that featured KAIROS similarly dipped in and out of recognizability, always dangling uncertainties. Tavernous consisted of a series of solos and duets, accompanied by vocalists and the orchestra. In a subsection called No. 11: Estuans interius, the relationship between Olivia Moon and Cassie Wang (Fate and Fortune, respectively) felt fluid and shapeless; the movers manipulated each other’s bodies like dolls, sharing weight to become one form; they lifted each other, and seemed to play and fight with an effortless dynamism.

Dress, composed by Dave Eggar, and choreographed in a collaboration between Pellecchia and Stuart Meyers, also animated fluidity. As the solo dancer, Meyers’s body seemed to shift between states of matter. In the beginning, those movements appeared airy and fleeting like smoke dissipating. Then the phrases became more bold, more intelligible from far away, but the images never fully fleshed out, and the ideas never had a chance to solidify before being interrupted. Often sudden running in place broke phrases. At one point, Meyers’s throes knocked Meyers down fully, as the violin solo crescendoed and descended in pitch. Meyers conceived and developed the solo in the formlessness of memories, particularly relating to gender identity. The self-reflective piece passed like smoke from an extinguished candle, yet the residuum of the form persisted.

Dave Eggar played his cello score on a severely amplified tape; we noted some melodic gestures that seemed to come from isolated measures of Bach, as well as from “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” The handout notes read: “As a newly-identified trans person, Stuart dances, like the Jewish Kaddish prayer, in the grey space between mourning and trust in who we are becoming.”

Kristin Wagner (Ram), Olivia Moon (Cock), DeAnna Pellecchia (Fox) and Cassie Wang (Cat)(Liz Linder photo)

Tavernous, a choreographed work-in-premier, set four numbers from Orff’s beloved Carmina Burana, and involved soloists and chorus from among the Renaissance Men, with accompaniment of piano and percussion ensemble beneath the stage, plus dancers, four barroom stools, and video projections. The lively Latin text is bibulous, with a swilling abbot, a Song of the Roasted Swan, and a caravan of drunks, all of which, with a wonderfully animated choreography (8 dancers), combine brilliantly to bring out the hilarity in this sometimes-trashy music. We took extreme pleasure in the extravaganza.

The show wound up with Foxy, a modern English version of Stravinsky’s barnyard comedy Renard (Russian title Baika, meaning “cock-and-bull story,” in my dictionary), with a Fox, a Cock, a Cat, and a Ram. In 1916 Princess Edmond de Polignac (née Winnaretta Singer) commissioned this mini ballet, “to be sung, played, and danced” for private performance during the Great War. One seldom hears this chamber-theater masterpiece, if only because of the prominent role given to the hard-to-find cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer [more on these pages HERE]; Nick Tolle played outstandingly once again. Singers and chamber ensemble sat beneath the stage, and the singers especially were amplified too loudly; but a bright and energetic performance resulted nonethless. Some of Stravinsky’s brash harmony turns up again in l’Histoire du soldat, which is slightly later, and after that among the Parisian pasticheurs (there’s one chord in Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano Four Hands that is unmistakable). The melodic style comes from 19th-century Russian folksongs, filtered through Stravinsky’s cozy ostinato basses.

A projection of a barn door opened to begin the piece. Soon, the barnyard filled with feathered creatures. As the story goes, the fox (DeAnna Pellecchia) tried to lure the cock (Olivia Moon) from its perch, with help from the cat (Cassie Wang), the ram (Kristin Wagner) and the chorus. In a notable moment, the chorus, cat, and ram gathered below the cock’s perch, fanning bills of money and dangling toys and high heels. The story unfolded clearly through the cohesion of the dancers’ movements and the vocalists of Renaissance Men, who impersonated each character, and resulted in an imaginative, folkloric yet contemporary comedy.

The extensive and well-annotated booklet identifies all the performers in detail, but also includes the complete texts for the Orff and Stravinsky; for the latter, it was noted that Rollo Myers’s English version of Renard was specifically approved by the composer.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.
Nora Paul,  an arts journalist in Chicago, is currently studying dance in Boston.

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