REVIEW: ‘Well out of the ordinary’: dance, words, jazz share stage at spirited opening night

Guest Review by Anthony Bannon

The heart sounds most notably within a sprung rhythm; its regular beat is taken for granted. The soul also sings on the back beat.

Dance stepped out of its patterns Friday evening at the season’s first Salon to share the stage in the Amphitheater with words and jazz.

The jazzy words’ poems reciprocated, creating a singular time for movement.

The three giants of art came together to bring their traditions to a common place, well out of the ordinary: the poet, his words free of the book; the choreographer, his dance into the vernacular; and the jazz pianist, released from accompaniment.

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky received applause during his appointment as a “public poet,” a designation that recognized his efforts to bring citizens into his wordplay. He notably proposed to record the favorite poems of the body politic, and the response was overwhelming.

In that spirit, choreographer Mark Diamond and Pinsky took on the challenge to make dance that could march to word’s drummer, and, for good measure, they completed the notion by including the virtuoso jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood, a Grammy Award-winner who recently recorded “PoemJazz” with Pinsky. Thus, the precedent for the suite of six poems selected for performance here with the Charlotte Ballet, called “House Hour: PoemJazz II.”

Temptation calls out to name the Pensky-Diamond-Hobgood trio “PoemJazzDance.“

But that is off the mark, and too easy.

Theirs was a melody of movement, word and sound, in which each element made its own way, wound its own clocks, and agreed to stay in touch, attentive to each others’ footfalls. This made something more of their work together than the simple sum of parts.

This was the world premiere of “According to Pinsky,” and it was extraordinary.

They made this art anew, fresh and vigorous, and they owned it — full-on, each with integrity, giving nothing up of their own, but each with a good look at their partners’ backs, finding ways when appropriate to come together.

In some ways, their program made no ordinary sense, the audience compelled to work with the artists to understand a first-time experience. This is art where it is should be, and with that in mind, it should not be called “According to Pinsky,” for it wasn’t. It also was not just “According to Diamond,” as his work was Diamond — really at his best — nor was it “According to Hobgood,” a great jazzman, well known as the longtime accompanist for Kurt Elling, who held his true course, with breathtaking invention.

Diamond’s choreography, spectacularly inspired by his collaborators in the idea of pairings — a stance appropriate for the collaborative theme of the evening — was heart-stopping. Diamond is the frequent choreographer for the Charlotte Ballet, which just gets better and better each summer.

Pinsky’s readings, from memory — with slight variations off the text — began with “Food” from 2012. The poet conveyed his work in a bebop baritone, hitting hard the consonants and parsing the poem’s phrases into dialectics, spans of presence and absence, of luxury and craving, like the cooked and the raw, absence and need.

Hobgood began by going for fundamentals, reaching under the hood of his piano to find the natural string, by-passing the mediation piano’s keys, as Diamond’s designs wove between these lines, creating occasional synchrony with the language.

The poem “Sayings of the Old” from 2011 next encouraged the poet to assume a storytelling manner, as in the title poem, “House Hour,” also the title poem in Pinsky’s new CD.

“House Hour” is an imagistic word-painting of an unnamed city as if it were a human spirit: “If I am hollow, or if I am heavy with longing, the same: / The ponderous houses …” as dancers created strange, shifting geometries, like a skyline, and the piano ranged through a tumble of moods, all to end with a twinkle of dancers’ wrists and a riff from the keyboard, conjuring that:

“In a certain light, hanging nothing, but touching

Those separate hours of the past

And now at this one time

Of day touching this one, last spokes

Of light silvering the attic dust.”

Pinsky has done this PoemJazz program before, just last year in Boston with Vijay Iyer’s Trio, but not before with dance. That new element added such a dimension, such a facet that Diamond mastered by keeping his own counsel, not giving in to illustration, save for an incidental movement, understated like a whispered echo. For example, Diamond seized upon the Pinsky trope of “the true addiction” of art in the poem “Horn,”  and he amplified it with a flutter of fingers upon the heart, signifying the beat-skipping passion of creation that the poem extends from Dante (whose Inferno Pinsky famously translated ) to a “hack journeyman hornman … the Dante of bop.” (Swift piano rivers from Hobgood and dancers wild to keep up with it all, wired tightly, like marionettes).

The PoemJazz suite concluded with the title poem from Pinsky’s 1990 book, The Want Bone, a tour de force on the fullness of life into death, inferred by the letter “O,” laced through the poem as the long O, the one that says its name, as in “joined,” and “flower,” to which dancers shadowed sound and meaning — circles around the stage space and within the body. It was an apt conclusion — and privilege for Chautauqua — to witness a masterwork symphony of equals, with only three instruments — times eight dancers.

Diamond continued the pas de deux thought of the coupling dancer following intermission with a clever application of the Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet, “How Do I Love Thee,” pleasantly read by the dancers themselves, each miked for sound: Chelsea Dumas with Joshua Hall and Elizabeth Truell with Gregory Taylor. Their dance expressed a central form in dance, the pas de deux, observing its loving completion, first by the explication of the poetic declarations, “How do I count the ways?”: and among them answered in the embrace, as with the shadow of one movement by the other, a rhyme of one body with another — bodies drawn apart, only to return, to hold and to be held, or to be lifted and the allowing to be lifted.

Company Associate Artistic Director Sasha Janes began and concluded the evening with two powerful, and very different works. The first, “Loss,” was set to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Janes’ dance is a haunt that has a stated theme — the notion of grief over loss — although its abstract qualities so overweigh any facile dedication. It is a life-sized work, not a miniature, packaged  with some handy names.

The two dancers in “Loss” declare a way of being in the world, at first by accident, and then with purpose, as Hall and Sarah Hayes Harkins move out of a fast track collision with each other and into an exaltation of lifts and turns, elevations and support, fulfillment and collapse.  Hall and Harkins present movements without names. The beauty of “Loss” is it gains the creation of new form. Its tragedy, the “loss” of the title, is the depicted collapse of life’s distant hopes, the look to afar without focus or sighting. Instead of hope at the end of life’s path, Jane’s aesthetic is resolved, in collapse — profoundly moving.

Janes’ finale takes on the contrary brilliance of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, author of just one album,  “Grace,” in which songs he built as covers significantly freshen the despair of a new century, just following upon his death in 1997. Janes also selected Buckley’s own “You and I,” a song poem that faces the headwind challenge of finding a way to drop away the weight of life, which a couple carries. Janes stages it as if from Samuel Beckett, dark and undetermined, the weight remaining, ever present at the end. The song is a drone, played loud, and the dance is angular, assertive and brave, by Dumas and Hall.

“Lilac Wine,” Buckley’s hard cover of Nina Simone, is another failed setting, Taylor bravely throwing himself headlong to the floor and raising up, only to literally climb the wall at stage end, then remaining motionless.

Janes calls his works “Sketches from Grace,” but it is far more than slight or preparatory sketches. These are crystalline, sharp edged reality checks from a dangerous time, reflecting the inopportune death of Jeff Buckley at 30 in a strange accident in the Mississippi River.

Buckley’s brilliant rough cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is a landmark adaptation of a legendary artist’s first take in 1984. Buckley brings to it the bipolar hope and dread of his time:

“Love is not a victory march

It is cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”

Janes’ reply — his cover — asks Harkins and Leeper to move together and then apart in extraordinary ways, finally as a dispirited glimpse of frustration, if not futility: Harkins climbing up Leeper’s torso as if he were stairs; Leeper sliding through Harkins legs, grabbing onto them like lifelines, and Harkins walking away, with Leeper attached as if a mechanical extension. Buckley’s “Hallelujah” is a cry from the desert, and Janes lets it too end without resolution, fading to black. As was Beckett’s “Act Without Words,” is Janes with Buckley, as was Pinsky with Diamond and Hobgood, a siren of our time.

Each work in the Dance Salon received spirited appreciation, along with the young man who brushed off the dance floor after performance of “How Do I Love Thee?”  The young man turned toward the applause and gave a practiced bow, and the audience redoubled its appreciation.

Anthony Bannon is the director of the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College.  A student of Selma Jean Cohen and Doris Hering, he previously served as dance and theater critic for The Buffalo News.