Saturday, February 18, 2017

2016 in Review: Dance, Dance, Dance!

Hi everyone,

It's hard to convince people to join me for dance performances, but they are well worth the price of admission. Continuing my look back at 2016, here's an review of the shows I saw last year.

Bowie & Queen (The Washington Ballet) 
Wandering around the Kennedy Center before seeing a show there, I saw the Washington Ballet's poster for its Bowie & Queen show. The image was of two glammed out ballet dancers striking poses – one was clearly meant to represent David Bowie during his Aladdin Sane days, while the other was obviously meant to be Freddie Mercury. I gasped, took a photo of it, and posted it on Facebook, noting that I was getting a ticket for whatever this was. My sister responded, saying she wanted to go too!

By the time the show came around, David Bowie had died. I'd never been so upset about a famous person dying as I was when he did. I attended a few local tribute concerts before realizing I wasn't enjoying the songs as much as hearing Bowie's own voice sing them. And, it was five months before I was ready to switch my iPod from my Bowie playlist back to shuffle mode. So although this concert was planned well in advance of Bowie's death, I set the bar unfairly and unreasonably high for how good it had to be.

I had some disappointments: First, no ballet dancers were dressed up as David Bowie or Freddie Mercury, as the poster had implied. That's false advertising. Also, the show was not a mix of David Bowie and Queen music, as I had assumed it would be. The first half was a world premiere dance, titled "Dancing in the Street," choreographed by Edward Liang. It focused on Bowie's introspective side and included two obscure 1966 tunes ("Good Morning Girl" and "I'm Not Losing Sleep") along with his 1985 cover with Mick Jagger of "Dancing in the Street."  From David Bowie's vast library of amazing songs, these are the only ones the choreographer chose to use! They were intertwined with live instrumental music by Gabriel Gaffney Smith, which my sister and I enjoyed more than the unfamiliar Bowie songs. My sister even commented that some of the dancers were, at times, a beat behind in their steps.

Now that I have a handle on my grief, I appreciate the Bowie-inspired dance much more and wish I could give it another look. It attempted to tell a story, revealing the thoughtful and deliberate relationship he had with his fans, behind his personas. It was intellectual, concise, and quiet, like the man himself. I think that Bowie would have loved it because his music was used to inspire new art from a completely unexpected perspective. You can't get much better than that.

Here are some highlights from the Bowie side.

Bowie dance highlights courtesy of The Washington Ballet, 2016 

The Queen side of the show – titled "Mercury Half-Life" – was exhilarating and everything I expected the Bowie side to be. It was Queen hit after Queen hit – "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Are the Champions," "We Will Rock You," "Under Pressure" (Freddie Mercury's duet with David Bowie) and many more. Choreographed by Trey McIntyre, the dances were exciting, the lights were bright, and the music was loud. That's all I wanted. Trey McIntyre, please create a David Bowie show next!

Here's some solo work from Mercury Half-Life.

Selection of Mercury Half-Life Solos
(Benjamin Everett Behrends, courtesy of NetworkDance, 2013)

DEMO Series (Damien Woetzel)
I went to two shows that were part of the Kennedy Center's DEMO series because of Lil Buck's involvement. I know Lil Buck, a hip-hop "jookin" dancer, from his involvement with the TV show "So You Think You can Dance." He's amazing and can be seen on TV these days in variations of this Apple commercial. Conceived by Damian Woetzel, the DEMO series explores different themes through a variety of art forms.

In April, DEMO: Places offered varied entertaining performances representing arts from around the world, including hip-hop dancing and authentic music from India, Ireland, and China. It also included some original American songs (sung by Kate Davis, who is new to me but I liked her voice and songs) and familiar classical music, like Stravinsky and Bach.

The next day at noon, I attended a Citizen Artist Event that was advertised in the playbill. It was presented by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in collaboration with the Kennedy Center.  The same performers presented a similar free performance outside the museum's front doors, where we sat on the ground in a wide circle to watch them. These are the types of things that make D.C. awesome.

Six months later, DEMO: Heroes focused on performers and mentors who have inspired future generations. I was excited that the first dance noted in the playbill was a tribute to Gene Kelly and other dancers, but my first thought was that the list missed the opportunity to acknowledge the title of the show with a performance of one of David Bowie's signature song, "Heroes." (Yes, I am still sad.) But great minds think alike because Kate Davis kicked off the show performing this song with her acoustic guitar while Lil Buck glided around her. (In fact, this show was named after this song, inspired by the outpouring of tributes paid to artists in 2016, including David Bowie.)

I knew most of the mentors they chose to highlight in this show. Aside from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, they also paid tribute to dancers Martha Graham, Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr., and George Balanchine, among others. For music, they honored opera singer Renee Fleming, Stevie Wonder and Oscar Peterson (with a piano performance by 12-year-old blind prodigy Matthew Whitaker), and Leonard Cohen (with a performance by the Musicorps Wounded Warrior Band). One of the most poignant pieces was "Vision and Justice," a video collage of photographs set to segments of speeches by John F. Kennedy.

These DEMO series concerts are not only educational but entertaining, offering unexpected combinations of art forms. Prepare to be surprised and inspired! While not the same show I saw, this video is a sampling of what to expect from a DEMO show.

Works in Progress at the Guggenheim: DEMO with Damian Woetzel, 2014

The Blues Project (Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely)
I came back to the Kennedy Center to see The Blues Project by Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely. I was impressed by Michelle Dorrance when I saw her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier in the year.

This tap-happy show was accompanied by live blues music by Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely, who played behind the dancers. Although I hadn't heard of Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely before, some people in the audience were longtime fans. Now I'm a fan too – I liked their songs and style. This performance introduced some inventive tap moves. I liked the colorful costumes and appreciated that the dancers comprised a diverse group.

Check out this preview to get a taste of the exciting performances in The Blues Project.

The Blues Project: Dorrance Dance and Toshi Reagon and BIGlovely, 2016

Dancers are amazing athletes, and they're energy is contagious. Treat yourself to a show. It's good for your health, and you just might come away from it floating on air, just like them.


Image credits: Bowie & Queen: Jennifer Zmuda, Demo Series: Teresa Wood, and The Blues Project: Christopher Duggan

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