This year has been a hard one for dance companies. According to Heather Maloy, artistic director of Asheville's Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance, “across the country dance companies are folding or laying off large numbers.” Terpsicorps, which draws its cast from professional dancers on summer break from their regular companies, isn't facing layoffs, but these are still uneasy times. “We could be losing our studio space,” Maloy reveals of the troupe's Wedge building rehearsal room.
Like proverbial lemonade from life's lemons, Maloy is drawing inspiration from adversity, and this season Terpsicorps will premiere The Recession Blues & other works. The title piece, a collaboration with Asheville's Firecracker Jazz Band, balances what Maloy calls “the most resonant themes of the current recession” with athletic modern dance and a healthy dose of humor. “The way I'm getting through the day,” the artistic director and choreographer says, “is I'm laughing so hard I have to leave the room to pee.”
Yeah, it's a laugh-so-you-don't-cry tactic, but Terpsicorps' Recession Blues also promises to be truly funny. (It will also be Terpsicorps' lone Asheville show this season, both for financial reasons and because the dance company is debuting a season in Winston-Salem, thanks to funding by that city's arts council.) Maloy describes one section in which dancers, dressed as Desert Storm soldiers, perform 1920s and 30s-era musical theater — the over-the-top slapstick — all the while being shot down. As for guns, five of the six dancers hold M-16 rifles. The sixth dancer holds a cardboard cutout scrawled with the words, “On order.”
In another segment, dancers represent a cross section of careers hardest-hit by the economic downturn. Instead of an unemployment line they form a Rockettes-style kick line.
Excitedly, Maloy tells Firecracker Jazz Band guitarist Jon Corbin, “There was a scene I was working on yesterday — I was thinking, ‘I can't wait until [the band] sees this.'” It's a fight choreographed to a drum solo featured on Firecracker's recently released album, Red Hot Band (recorded at the Mississippi studio of Squirrel Nut Zippers' Jimbo Mathis on vintage equipment).
Corbin has worked with Terpsicorps before. In fact, the dance company has engaged a local musician or band to perform at all but its debut show. Maloy tapped Firecracker Jazz Band for this year's season when she heard one of the band's shows. She knew she wanted to collaborate; the theme came later. See, much of Firecracker's vintage music harkens back to the Great Depression and the ragtime jazz of those years. But even though the Depression and the current recession share some similarities, Maloy differentiates between the two. “The costumes are contemporary and also really sparse,” she explains. On stage, where some live-band-and-dancer combos share a real-time chemistry, Firecracker and the Terpsicorps cast will be separated by an ideological line in the sand: The band is of the 1920s and ‘30s; the dancers are of today's world.
Still, the live performance presents an interesting challenge: “With jazz, there's an element of improvisation,” Corbin says. “We've got to keep that to a minimum.”
He adds, “I was blown away by how technical [the dancers are] in rehearsal. It was an eye-opener how they were living and dying on every beat.” Apparently, even with ironclad structure, the collaboration is a welcome one. “Everyone in the band is excited to see how our music is interpreted,” Corbin says.
For this performance, Maloy is teaming up not only with the band, but with local relief agency Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Mission (ABCCM). “This is about the recession and everyone is struggling,” Maloy says. During May, Terpsicorps partnered with ABCCM as well as MANNA FoodBank, Mountain Housing Opportunities and Green Opportunities to offer buy-one-get-one-free performance vouchers to donors who gave at least $45 to the local charities. During the June shows, Terpsicorps asks audience members to bring canned goods for an ABCCM food drive.
Continuing the recession/Depression theme, Saturday's show will be followed by a “Party Like It's 1929” after-event in the art deco-designed S&W building (home of Steak & Wine restaurant) with DJ Trevor spinning dance music.
While Recession Blues is the show's featured dance, the performance also includes back-by-popular-demand pieces such as the breathtaking Salvatore Aiello-choreographed “Satto” and Maloy's own “Le Suil Go …,” an athletic feat set to Celtic music. Also in store: A newly-created pas de deux titled “Luminescent Chocolate,” set to an aggregate of regional groups Luminescent Orchestrii and The Carolina Chocolate Drops. “It has banjo and beat boxing,” Maloy says. “I have a friend who has a recording studio in Winston-Salem and [the two bands] got together and jammed.”
Even in the lean times, this Terpsicorps performance seems to suggest the local arts scene is rich with inspiration.
who: Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance
what: The Recession Blues & other works
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Thursday, June 25, to Saturday, June 27 (8 p.m. $30, $25 students & seniors. 257-4530). Gala night is Thursday, June 25 (7 p.m., $75). Party Like It's 1929 is Saturday, June 27 (9:30 p.m. at S&W, 56 Patton Ave., Asheville. $10 with Terpsicorps ticket, $15 general public).