Dance recital hot enough to trigger an alarm

by Amy Kingsley

As I hand my ticket to a female usher in a floppy hat, she instructs me that the dance performance I’m about to see runs an hour and has no intermission.

‘“The bathroom’s right over there,’” she says.

An hour is not so long to sit, so I settle into one of the standard, spring-loaded theater seats towards the back of the stadium riser. Her warning, however, turns out to be unnecessary.

The house lights dim and the hissing of a prodigious fog machine almost obscures the canned announcement warning audience members to turn off cell phones, refrain from recording and heed fire exits. By the time the room hits pitch, a jangling guitar picks out some high notes over the background scratch of a phonograph needle.

A green wash illuminates the sizable cast of 28 dancers frozen in position as the Django Reinhardt tune hits a raucous rhythm and a train bellows across the stage. The piece, choreographed by John Gamble and titled ‘“1934-1937’” uses no set pieces and few props. In the first number, the dancers rotate acting in the capacity of a set as they move around the dusty vinyl floor.

The title of the piece reflects its inspiration: music recorded by jazz guitarist Reinhardt and Piedmont blues legend Tampa Red between the quoted years. The two musicians came from different traditions ‘— The Gypsy Reinhardt found fame in Parisian cafes where Tampa Red plied his blues closer to our home. But Gamble saw an opportunity to unite them for a performance evocative of rural life during the same three-year period.

The dancing itself is an interpretation of the Charlestons and Lindy Hops once popularized at the Savoy Ballroom. Elements of modern dance slow the frantic motions to match the occasional pathos of the bluesy laments.

The costumes perfectly suit the world these dancers inhabit. They are simply cut numbers from a variety of patterns, stitched from simple materials and patterned for hard work and hard play. By the looks of it, each costume piece has been carefully distressed.

The soundtrack runs straight throughout the performance, and what would normally be separate pieces run together almost seamlessly. For the second number, another Reinhardt piece, three women take the stage for a dance resembling the jostling movements of marionettes at once readied and relaxed.

Tampa Red takes center stage for the third number, and the dancers capture in their gestures the blue notes in his music. The overhead lights cycle to the scandalous red of a juke joint as a mixed-gender group of five dancers migrates from upstage left to downstage right like a horizontal wacky wall walker.

Around the time the soundscape shifts from train to crickets, a noise not as indigenous to the undeveloped countryside creeps into the mix. As the music fades to its end, the volume of this fire alarm seems to rise. Dancer Todd Fisher tells the audience to clear the auditorium.

This unexpected intermission unfortunately breaks the spell the music and movement have worked to draw the audience back into the rhythms of the Depression-era South. About a quarter of the grudgingly displaced audience has left the theater when the false alarm is called off.

Once the audience is seated securely in their seats, the show resumes. Choreographing this piece was, in Gamble’s words, an easier task than previous undertakings.

The choreographer, who is marking 20 years teaching in the UNCG dance department, usually puts on one large piece a year.

‘“Last year we did a very big multimedia piece with projections and live music,’” he says. ‘“This one has just been a bit more fun.’”

Modern dance pieces also often divide into discrete chapters, as opposed to the flowing structure of ‘“1934-1937’”. The movement of the dancers between curtain legs is reminiscent the progress of life, from workday to juke joint and troubled home.

In the second half, one piece simply lets loose with the slapstick joy of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Performers traipse in pairs across the stage chopping the air and skipping madly. The segment captures the raw joy of big band music that dominated mass media in the 1930s and even infiltrated folk musical forms.

‘“That music is from the swing era,’” Gamble said about Tampa Red and Reinhardt. ‘“We brought in someone conversant in swing dancing just to get that vocabulary. Even though Tampa Red is a one-man band and Reinhardt plays with only a few musicians, it’s really the same music.’”

One of the last pieces plays this up with a group ballroom dance. The performers freeze their poses several times like stop-motion. Pools of white light interrupt the blue wash during the last piece featuring several female dancers.

After the low-key performance, the dancers gather in the halls between lecture rooms and congratulate each other on the night’s show. It was a little rough in spots, Gamble says, and the unexpected intermission didn’t help. But he’s looking forward to more performances over the weekend without the fire alarm’s unexpected intrusion.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at