Interpretive dancing in the dark

“Everybody’s doing it,” reveals Joanie Smith, choreographer for Shapiro and Smith Dance, scheduled to perform at Diana Wortham Theatre March 28 and 29. She’s talking about performing modern dance to atypical forms of music.

And she’s right — witness NC Dance Theatre’s balletic contortions to the hectic strains of local bluegrass boys the Greasy Beans, a spectacle that played out on the DWT stage March 1.

“You saw a bit of it in the 1970s,” notes Smith, recalling choreographer Twyla Tharp performing to the songs of Frank Sinatra. “I think [a trend like] this happens when a lot of people arrive at an idea at the same time.”

For Shapiro and Smith, the music had to be that of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band members Patti Scialfa (Springsteen’s wife of nearly 15 years) and Soozie Tyrell.

Sister act

Other recent efforts in the dance world have included hip-hop as a repertory show, modern danced to Iraqi folk music — even American-ballet patriarch George Balanchine often set his works to unexpected choices such as Gershwin.

But Springsteen? The ultra-middle-American rocker, when mentioned in the same sentence as “dance,” brings instantly to mind a single disturbing image: a stiff-limbed Courteney Cox, circa 1984, pulled from the audience to lurch about the stage with the Boss in his “Dancing in the Dark” video.

But, according to Smith, the Minneapolis-based dance company’s production, Anytown: Stories of America, is a whole different beast.

It just so happens that violinist Tyrell is Smith’s sister, a fact that lends immediate direction to this story.

“[Soozie’s] best friend is Patti,” the choreographer explains. “Years ago Soozie and Patti and [Smith’s husband] Danny [Shapiro] and I were all young in New York City. We’d have dinner parties where we’d push back the furniture. Soozie and Patti would play [music] and Danny and I would dance.

“We talked about doing something for years.”

Finally, three years ago, Smith and Shapiro set about creating the production.

“As we got to know [Springsteen] better, we wanted to work with all three performers,” Smith notes. “Some of Bruce’s music is right on the line between folk and rock. Even some of the diehard fans are not as familiar with some of these songs; they’re not as well known.”

Anytown includes 20 pieces, each performed to a different song. Expect lots of blue jeans and tank tops (this is Americana, after all) and plenty of writhing-on-the-floor moves, a la modern dance. Here’s the context: The stories of three families are threaded through the performance, creating a loose framework. “It’s a suggestion of a story,” Smith explains, “but if you’re looking for West Side Story, it’s not that big a story.”

No small stories

Themes run the murky, emotive gamut from a love triangle, a flood and death to … rocking out club-style. “When you start working to lyrics or text, it makes it very specific,” Smith says. “There’s a challenge not to get lost in that. It’s also a challenge to honor [the words] and not confuse everyone.”

With an artist like Springsteen supplying the soundtrack (albeit a prerecorded one: “Because who else could sing Bruce’s songs?” the choreographer laughs), fans are sure to have their own interpretations of the Boss’ lyrics.

“We’re in similar emotional worlds,” Smith promises. “We may not be doing everything Bruce is saying, but we’re in the same emotional color.”

Story aside, there are, she says, some surprises in Anytown. “The Big Muddy” (a Springsteen song) opens with a woman lifting a man — a maneuver not often exacted in professional dance. And then there’s the sheer watchability and athleticism of these dancers — many of whom are past the age most performers retire, careers with other companies behind them. Dancer Carl Fink was a soloist with Limon Dance Company last decade, Michael Blake began his career with the Murray Louis Dance Company in the early ’80s, Toni Pierce-Sands has taught dance throughout the U.S. and Europe and is currently an instructor at the University of Minnesota.

Some of Shapiro and Smith’s 11 dancers have children; some live in other states. “Everybody has these lives,” the choreographer notes. “We’d rehearse for a few weeks, then have to go back to our other commitments.”

After three years of work, Anytown began its international tour last autumn. “For us, it’s a gigantic undertaking,” Smith says. “We have, essentially, a two-bedroom apartment on stage that we have to drag all over the country.”

“Ultimately,” she adds, “We’re just a mom-and-pop organization.” Cue “Born in the U.S.A.”

Anytown: Stories of America takes the stage at Diana Wortham Theatre Tuesday, March 28 and Wednesday, March 29. Shows start at 8 p.m. nightly, and tickets run $30/general, $28/seniors, $23/students, $10/children, with $10 student-rush tickets available the day of the show. 257-4530.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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