MINNESOTA FRINGE FESTIVAL — IDENTITY

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People Together and Apart

4 stars

 

Karen Charles has appeared – or re-appeared—on the Twin Cities dance scene over the past few years. She does multi-cultural work with multi-racial casts. She is not a youngster. She brings choreographic skills that are well beyond the rocket-rides and dismal mistakes of beginner efforts. She is African-American and works in very technical Modern dance. She does not define herself by racially specific genres and themes.

This show, just barely 45 minutes long, explores people separated from each other and people coming together. The issue is honesty of identity. To quote from the printed programme, “Eventually we seek the freedom to be comfortable in our own skins.”

It’s a wholesome show, but grown-up. Along the way we get cheerful good dancing, a depiction of social exclusion or pariah-making, a duet exploring two people distant from each other because they communicate mostly by texting, and a passionately horrific response to lynchings in the deep South during the 1930’s.

The dancing is well-rehearsed and very accomplished. Training is obviously very technical without descending to empty physical virtuosity. A few pieces extensively use unison movement, which requires incredibly meticulous discipline. Except for a few fuzzy moments in the Samuel Barber piece, these folks were superlatively clean with unison movement.

A few words, in my humble opinion, about dance set to music with lyrics. That was the case for about two thirds of this show. It’s an extremely delicate, fragile, and difficult thing. There’s the music, there’s the word-content of the lyrics, and there’s the dance performance. All three have to talk with each other, so to speak.

It’s often fatal to illustrate lyrics literally. For example, if you’re using, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” you might consider carefully whether you want your dancers to be literal by boogieing ecstatically on the first half of the phrase then crumpling into sobbing heaps on the second half. Unless, of course, your intention is a satire so masterfully over the top that the image I just offered is the least of the outrages.

It is also unwise, quite often, to simply ignore the lyrics. Audiences may be watching the dance more than listening to the song, but individual words will still jump out and command attention. Consider the word, “Yesterday” in John Lennon’s iconic song by that name.

And then there’s the music itself. A whole other dimension.

I experienced a bit of a spectrum in regard to music with lyrics in this show. For example, the beautifully danced opening quartet strung a series of attractive moves together in time to the music, but I didn’t experience an accessible connection to the lyrics, nor to the stated theme of the show.

By contrast, Nina Simone’s notoriously merciless rendition of the searing song, “Strange Fruit,” about lynchings 80 and more years ago in the South, could overpower many dances. Not to mention the horrific historical photographs projected upstage. The choreography for this piece, and the committed performance by Davente Gilreath, nearly rose to the occasion. No lyrics were literally mimed. No jazzy counts followed the music. But everything –choreography, performance, lyrics, and photos, were on the same page and enhanced each other.

Some other pieces were a bit disconnected from the lyrics, or occasionally a bit literal.

One last thought. I have watched gazillions of dances through well over 55 years. I’ve seen generation after generation discover Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” The themes of the dances have been quite varied over the years, ranging from anti-war political rant to statement of pre-suicidal loneliness, to tender romantic duet, and so many others. My question is: why do almost all of them choose to have dancers crumple abruptly to the floor at one or more points during the music? Almost all of them. Regardless of the theme of the dance.