MADISON, Wis. — In a departure from their usual Martha Graham-influenced work, “Love is Love”, Kanopy Dance Company’s midwinter offering in the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall, features three colorful, energetic works from Stanley Love and three from New York-based choreographer, Ede Thurell. The show runs through Feb. 23.
Love was a fixture in the New York City downtown dance scene, until his untimely death at age 49 last August. Already contracted to participate in this show, four of Love’s frequent collaborators banded together to complete the Kanopy residency in his stead, resetting the three works and contributing costumes and sets.
Love’s zest for life was most evident in the opening piece, “The Love Number”. Made in 1997, Madison audiences first saw this piece in 2016. The large ensemble adorned in David Quinn’s lively bright pink and orange bell bottoms and oversized caps, parade around to Barry White music as if they all just stepped out of a 1970s Jackson 5 cartoon. Lightweight and entertaining, soft leaps meld into simple unison poses blending an Isadora Duncan-like freedom with the funky angularity of vogueing. Las Vegas-style drag queens in gold glitter headpieces, periodically strut across the stage, pausing to let the audience take them in. No deep message here, but a big-group warm welcome filled with smiles and camp.
In the gentle, “Living End I” (2003), Thurrell (who choreographed and performed) skips and prances, encircled by a fluttery red scarf. Set to a David Bowie track, this dance is really a duet with the scarf. At first the fabric becomes a cape enabling Thurrell to spring and run with the grace of an otherworldly gazelle, flexing her wrists as if practicing T’ai Chi. Next, the scarf is stagnant on the floor, a sleeping partner over which Thurrell curves and reaches. And finally, in moment gorgeously lit by Brad Toberman, crimson butterfly wings gracefully flap forward and back, carrying Thurrell into the darkness. Thurrell is a confident performer and this dance has deepened since its last Madison iteration.
“Bonewash”, a 2003 gem choreographed by Love, highlighted the evening. Also seen before in Madison, and also danced then by Thurrell, it is striking and meditative in its simplicity and repetition. Here, Love has fused delicate personal gestures with rigid Martha Graham vocabulary. An angel in Quinn’s flowing long white dress design, no doubt a nod to Graham’s “Diversion of Angels”, Thurrell places a hand to her heart, lifts her chest nearly floating away, then suddenly drops to a deep lunge, sweeping her hand across the floor. She throws herself to the ground, performing a harsh strong Graham technique warm-up, working cross-legged on the floor through a series of torso articulations. Just as abruptly, she’s back to the gentle gestures of the opening, repeating and repeating as an excerpt of a Laura Nero song repeats along with her. But each repetition is a subtle and beautiful growth and a change. Softly, she floats and shifts, finally reaching the edge of the stage, but how she’s gotten there is barely noticeable.
Thurrell’s humorous 1995 piece, “Headaches, Heartaches and Hangnails” danced by Kanopy’s junior company, set to a Patsy Cline song, is a funny minimalist take on life outside the mainstream. Less successful was “Living End II” (2003) also by Thurrell. The piece felt diminished, as if being performed in a different room. Danced by a pair of not-yet-company members, dim lighting, faces concealed by free-flowing hair and the powerful Bowie “Moonage Daydream” soundtrack distanced the performers, who are perhaps not yet ready to fill the demands of Thurrell’s intentions.
Billed as the centerpiece of the concert, “Adam and Steve,” Love’s tongue-in-cheek epic celebration of all loving relationships, retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, spicing it with a few other religious references and setting it as a love affair between two men in a New York disco. This piece had its premiere in 1992, when AIDS was the leading cause of death for young men in the U.S.
Pulsating Donna Summer music, bold sequin snakeskin trunks from Quinn, and a Noguchi-inspired set designed by Andrew Jordan (green planks that create a centerstage tree from which a few glittery apples dangle) set the scene for some palpable electricity between Adam (Brad Orego) and Steve (Michael Knight). In a show of partnering strength and dexterity, the two slide seamlessly over each other’s bodies, being lifted and turned like planks, one slithering over and under the other without touching the ground. In one compelling moment, Orego genuflects while balancing Knight horizontally on his shoulders.
All the while, a fig-leafed clad ensemble in an assortment of partnerships enjoy themselves in the shadows. The group has hard work to do, blending Love’s modern dance release and pedestrian movement with straight-up disco line dancing. And at times, their unison appears a bit uneven. But the piece is really all about Steve, and Knight’s supple, solid portrayal takes ballet-inspired extensions, fluid torso movement, leggy leaps and plenty of sass on this journey toward self-acceptance.
Along the way, Steve is tempted by shimmery Lucifia (a.k.a. Eve, danced by Thurrell) serving him a red dress cleverly concealed in an apple-themed purse. The flamboyant flying entrance of God (Robert Cleary sporting an Elvis/Liberace mash-up complete with white sequin jumpsuit, big silver hair and wings!), puts Steve in his place. A chorus of Satanettes (red sequined dresses!) and Arch Angels (silver police caps!) come and go, as does disco-ball lighting. All the while, the upbeat music’s lyrics drive the story. “I feel love”, “bad girls” and “let’s dance the last dance”. Without the eye candy from Quinn, all this craziness would still work, but the vibrant costume designs are inventive and exquisite.
In the final moment of this 20-minute romp, Steve ascends the base of the tree extending his arms in a Christ-like image of death on a cross. He does so with a wink and grin though, and it’s a surreal ending as if Love is smiling and winking from the heavens.
Love is Love runs through Feb. 23 at the Overture Center, 201 State Street, Madison. Tickets are $35, at 608-258-4141 and www.overture.org.
Maureen Janson is a choreographer, a former dancer, a photographer and a writer. She has contributed to Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, Dance Teacher, and The Capital Times among other publications. She was the founding editor/publisher of Scoliosis Quarterly magazine, and with her mentor Anna Paskevska, she co-wrote the second edition of Getting Started in Ballet (2016, Oxford University Press). In 2019, Maureen made her playwriting debut with Beautiful View-a collection of monologues that may or may not have something to do with the moon. Details about her work can be found at maureenjanson.com.
Header photo: Kanopy Dance Company in “Love is Love”, photo by Harper Photography