Sunday, January 22, 2006

Anytown: Stories of America

ON Friday a modern-dance choreographer named Gabrielle Lansner opened "River Deep," a dance tribute to Tina Turner (with a new score by Philip Hamilton) that will run at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on West 42nd Street for two weeks. On Tuesday Shapiro & Smith, a modern-dance duo based in Minneapolis since 1995, will introduce a work for 11 dancers called "Anytown" at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. Based on nine recorded songs by Bruce Springsteen, along with others by Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell, "Anytown" has embarked on a three-year, 60-city United States tour.

"Anytown" is a family affair in two senses. It's about three average American families, and it's a family production: Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith are married; Ms. Tyrell is Mr. Shapiro's sister; Ms. Scialfa is Ms. Tyrell's best friend from childhood. Ms. Tyrell and Ms. Scialfa have made their own records, but perform in Mr. Springsteen's E Street Band. And Ms. Scialfa is married to him.

Modern dance would seem suited to rock: ordinary people, everyday clothes, ordinary families, movements that embrace myriad social dances that the music spawned.

Yet curiously, it was ballet that provided the first major forum for rock. And while Twyla Tharp, the greatest choreographer to work regularly with modern popular music, is a modern dancer, the Joffrey Ballet gave her her first big break into the pop-music field.

Modern-dance experimentalists of the 1960's were mostly fixated on Minimalism and natural movement and working independently of music. Thus it was Robert Joffrey, with his "Astarte" in 1967, who first thrust rock music down the throats of a mass middle-age, middle-class dance audience. The National Ballet of Canada performed a ballet set to the Who's rock opera, "Tommy." The Joffrey's Gerald Arpino had a popular hit with the rock ballet "Trinity" (1970) and later oversaw the creation of "Billboards" (1993), which had four choreographers, to music by Prince. It was not until 1973, when Joffrey lured Ms. Tharp into creating "Deuce Coupe," set to Beach Boys music, that rock ballet produced its first recognized masterpiece.

Since then Ms. Tharp has set dances to all kinds of music, but she has remained loyal to rock. She has done Chuck Berry, Paul Simon, "Hair" (the Milos Forman film), Randy Newman, Supertramp, Mr. Springsteen, David Byrne, Billy Joel ("Movin' Out" just closed on Broadway) and Bob Dylan ("The Times They Are a-Changin'," a forthcoming dance musical).

In her autobiography, "Push Comes to Shove," she says her husband at the time, Robert Huot - who subscribed to the Minimalists' disdain of commercialism - disapproved of her reaching out for popular success, as he saw it. But Ms. Tharp has always seemed utterly un-self-conscious about "stooping" to popular music. She just thought she was learning how to communicate with her audience.

Ms. Tharp's choreographic evolution is instructive. She didn't change her idiom all that much when she took on popular music. Rock offers choreographers clear musical structure. It may not be as harmonically sophisticated as modern classical music or jazz; it may strike some as simplistic. Its song forms often push rock ballets toward suites of short dances strung together (which led Ms. Tharp to use newly composed bridging music in "Deuce Coupe").

But the structural rigor of rock clearly appealed to the 60's generation of modern-dance choreographers. And while the heavy, 2/4 beat of most rock, marked out by steadily (and sometimes stiffly) pounding drums, might seem constraining, choreographers have long found music with a palpable beat appealing. Witness, recently, the popularity of Philip Glass and John Adams among dancers.

The lyrics appealed, as well. Lyrics usually tell stories, suggesting a narrative form for dance. Often, in the case of composers Ms. Tharp has used, like Mr. Simon, Mr. Newman and Mr. Byrne, the stories are sophisticated and complex. Unlike rock videos, which annoyingly impose a director's vision on the elusiveness of the lyrics, dance can enliven songs visually without constricting their multiple meanings.

There is still something incongruous about ballet dancers dancing classroom steps in toe shoes to rock music. And when they do, the efforts of companies to reach beyond the typical ballet audience to a supposedly younger, hipper crowd can look pretty desperate.

That was the case last year when Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, which has of late been struggling financially, brought to New York two of its recent efforts to appeal beyond ballet's normal borders. Kevin O'Day's dance to Sting was just unimaginative. Derek Deane's Springsteen ballet, "Hungry Heart," was downright condescending in its superficial misreadings of some of Mr. Springsteen's darkest songs.

The rock chosen by most established choreographers today is more likely to appeal to their generation than to today's youth. Precious few mainstream dances have been made to truly contemporary popular music. Except, to be sure, for Rennie Harris and other choreographers, mostly black, who have explored hip-hop and break dancing.

When Merce Cunningham recently used Sigur Ros and Radiohead (live in the pit!) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, it looked more like his latching on to the latest hip thing than a real collaboration. As usual, Mr. Cunningham had his dancers proceed in blithe independence of whatever the musicians were doing. And Radiohead in particular seemed to be going against type in a mistaken effort to produce the kind of textural washes of sound normally heard from Mr. Cunningham's cadre of post-Cage electronic musicians.

A solution to bad rock dances is for choreographers to make better ones, taking the music seriously and adopting a dance idiom that suits it. One hopes Ms. Lansner and Shapiro & Smith can do just that. A longer-range approach is to consider how barriers have eroded in recent years, in music and in dance.

Through history dance has used whatever music there was. People who expect ballet to be neat and clean and accompanied by classical music tidily confined to the pit have simply not kept up with the restless innovations of modern ballet or the way different kinds of dance styles intersect on stages today. Ms. Tharp brought her company together with the Joffrey Ballet dancers in "Deuce Coupe" 33 years ago. Now, well-trained dancers do almost any kind of dance and choreographers expect such variety from them, sometimes in the same work.

The same is true with composers. Rock musicians have had less success than their classical counterparts in embracing the full range of music; they lack the technical skills for it. Conversely, classical musicians who try to write popular music - even good ones, like William Bolcom or Mr. Adams - can sound self-conscious, removed from the visceral impact of truly popular music.

Still, dance today and music today embrace a far wider stylistic spectrum than they did even a generation ago. Some purists will never accept modern dance in ballet, or electronic instruments and amplification in orchestral music. But the world has passed them by; such hybrids are what choreographers and composers are doing these days. By now, rock dance doesn't mean heavy metal and tutus. It means a new kind of serious dance set to a new kind of serious music.

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