The haunting melodies of Appalachia inspired a four-part dance premiering at the FUNHOUSE movement theater concert this weekend.
Called "Hardscrabble," the new work is based on Appalachian culture, says choreographer Lee Anne Hartley, now the sole artistic director of the local modern-dance troupe. "The movie Songcatcher inspired me. Old Scottish, English and Irish folksongs were left in the mountains and transformed over centuries. I was struck by how rich, diverse and wonderful Appalachian culture is. Art reinforces their lives. It's not the culture of Deliverance."
Traditional tunes will sound throughout the quarter-hour modern dance, including Alison Krauss' rendition of "Down by the River to Pray," an old-timey ballad that was a highlight of still another movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Merle Travis' version of the mining dirge "Dark as a Dungeon" is also on the musical menu, along with Natalie Merchant's "Sally Ann" and the instrumental piece "Appalachian Joy," performed by the Ricky Skaggs band.
The semi-narrative work flickers through images of life in the Appalachian hollows. Andrea Murray dances a solo in "A Young Girl's Dream," while in the background, Hartley and dancers Sherry Mulholland and Amanda Morse perform the gestures associated with traditional shape-note singing. In "Coal," Morse dances the part of a miner's wife in the foreground, while behind her, Hartley, Mulholland and Murray pull her injured husband (Leisel Womack) out of the mine.
Hartley and Mulholland portray a mother and daughter in "Hard Living," alternating between duets and solos. The finale, "Appalachian Joy," brings together the cast of five for an exuberant version of a country dance.
The famous 1944 dance Appalachian Spring drew on some of the same material, but did not help shape Hartley's new piece. Referring to the work's composer and choreographer, she says cheerfully, "There'll be no Aaron Copland, no Martha Graham."
This concert also marks the company's first with no Thom Lewis. Lewis and Hartley co-founded FUNHOUSE in 2000, and recently parted ways. They never collaborated on dances, Lewis notes, instead putting together concerts composed of their separate pieces of choreography.
"We were going in different directions," he says, "but it was good to have the opportunity to work on my stuff at FUNHOUSE."
Lewis, a former member of 10th Street Danceworks, has already started his own company, the eponymous Thom Lewis Dance. Plans are in the works for a children's ballet of The Emperor's New Threads to be performed this fall, and a modern-dance concert next spring that will revive the old 10th Street favorite Cat's Cradle.
"I'm very excited," he says. "I've been handed a wonderful opportunity."
Hartley says she intends to stick to the old FUNOUSE formula for featuring multiple choreographers in each concert.
"Instead of being the only one, I'm opening it up to the community, and to guest choreographers," she says. "I only want to do half the concert. It's about quality, not quantity."
This weekend's show will offer guest choreographers from ZUZI! and Salisbury University in Maryland, youth dancers from Ballet Rincon, the Japanese drumming group Odaiko Sonora, and guest dancer Kevin Schroder, one of Tucson's best modern performers.
Nanette Robinson, artistic director of ZUZI!, has staged her trapeze duet "Another Yourself" on two of her company dancers, Amber Eubanks and Alison Hart. Hartley saw the work in ZUZI!'s Solstice show last winter.
"I took one look, and it was wonderful," she says. "It will be a first for us to have a trapeze work."
Hartley was able to enlist Victoria Varel Hutchinson, because she's in Tucson this year, on sabbatical from her position as director of Salisbury's dance program. She's set her "Rhapsodic Duet" on the youth dancers of Tucson's Ballet Rincon. Set to portions of three Bach cello suites, "It's a wonderful piece," Hartley says. "We're really lucky to get her." Hartley plans to invite the Ballet Rincon dancers to perform every spring.
A pair of Hartley revivals rounds out the show. Schroder will dance the part of a fisherman in "Hokusai Seascape." Last performed in 2003, the painterly piece evokes a work by a 19th-century Japanese artist, with dancers artfully re-creating the ocean's waves, and cavorting as sea creatures around the fisherman and his boat. In a prelude to the water dance, Odaiko Sonora will perform a series of "water songs."
Hartley decided to re-stage her 1980s duet "Another Yourself" after seeing Lucia Zeffirelli's anti-war dance concert last winter. With America once again at war, the 20-year-old piece had become timely again. Hartley's father was a military man who died on duty in an airplane crash in 1959.
"I saw what my mom went through, but this piece didn't come out of me until I was in my mid-30s. It's about the people left behind."