Friday, June 5, 2009

You Want Some Thighs With That? – Bang Group Shows down at Joe’s Pub

A year ago, David Parker and the Bang Group created a buzz with Showdown, a forty-minute pop tart of a dream ballet for 8 dancers set to recordings created for the film version of Irving Berlin’s 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. This “pilot version” had only a two-night run at, of all places, Joe’s Pub, as part of Dance Now [NYC]’ s Dancemopolitan Modern [Dance] Musicals initiative.

Members of the cast of David Parker's "Showdown" giving us head in their Western shirts.
Thursday evening, the octet plus 3 returned to the scene of the climb with an ”expanded” version for a four performance encore that will end on Saturday with a two show closing night. I quote the producers advisedly, since expanding anything on the tiny stage of the hip cabaret, let alone a balletic quadrille, certainly seems like someone’s crack pipe dream. The performers enter onto literally a bandbox stage through a curtained opening in the acoustical baffles that line the back wall. That curtain hides a public hallway that leads directly to the backstage kitchen and bathrooms. You dance hard by someone's dinner.

The first hint that Dancemopolitan might actually succeed in its expansionist notions arrived with the appearance of the archly deadpan Monica Bill Barnes and Deborah Lohse through that curtain to a recording of a live concert by Johnny and June Carter Cash.  Dressed in black leather-like vests over red full body thermal underwear, complete with rear button fly, and brandishing silver snub nosed pistols, the pair strutted, threatened, and dryly idled its minute upon the stage until Lohse unfolded a welcome mat as the duet stalked off through the audience.
The mood changed abruptly as members of the Bang Group, first Bryan Campbell and Jeffrey Kazin, then Marissa Palley and Megan Flynn, then Nic Petry and Terry Duncan burst onto the stage dressed in jeans and checked work shirts to a recording of the musical’s overture. This segued to a lusty ensemble dance alongside “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” the show’s most enduring song.  Showdown’s score features the voices of Judy Garland and Howard Keel as recorded but never used for the 1950 MGM screen adaptation by erstwhile director Busby Berkeley.

Jeffrey Kazin rides high in the saddle in one of the easier lifts from "Showdown" (below)
This seems all of a piece with the ways in which Parker’s choreography bends, plays off of and defeats our expectations by its re-assignment and re-purposing of gender roles, relationships and formal structures.  In the first two numbers for example, the hips and derriere feature extensively in movement that swivels, sashays and displays as the sextet moves from balletic arm and leg extensions to cheeky ride ‘em cowboy hip mounts. Only occasionally will the couple in the various partnering, lifts and rides be of mixed gender.
Moreover, stylistic flourishes one most often associates with one sex will more often than not end up on the opposite sex, such as the ring of arms surrounding a soloist in a quote from Balanchine’s choreography for Episodes.  When the stalwart Amber Sloan takes on Kazin and Petry in dancing to “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” it’s the two men who start a variation on the famous “Dance of the Cygnets” from Swan Lake before Sloan joins to round out the trio.
These three performers embody the choreographic spine and the presentational soul of Parker’s work clawing their way to the top of the heap in a piece in which who gets what attention – from either the audience or potential partners onstage – makes up a large part of the comic subtext. One marvels at Kazin’s multiple pencil turns, fearless attack when lifted and repeated spiral descents from such lifts, Petry’s barefoot soft shoe; the redoubtable Sloan’s take-no-prisoners dancing and straight man’s sense of bewilderment when, for instance, she lifts Kazin only to find her face scissored between his calves.

Amber Sloan's face (at bottom below) seems more at ease anchoring the cast. Nic Petry brackets the totem at its top.

But the matter of fact cleanliness and understated goofiness of this core group extends throughout the company and underpins the subversion at the heart of Parker’s wit.  For the choreographer’s send ups range beyond ballet tropes to a fan circle ala Busby Berkeley (sans fans), Broadway hoofing from DeMille to Fosse, and the cult of ta-da!  Parker’s intricate formal structures begin, end or continue as often outside the bounds of individual numbers as they coincide with their musical demarcations. And while the general levity would not suffice to produce a laugh track, the choreographer consistently amuses even as he devilishly pulls the rug from beneath our feet.
These qualities dovetail perfectly with those of Barnes and Lohse as they return to bookend the evening. Originally, this pair had been scheduled to present a piece of its own entitled Southern Comfort, which would have alternated with Showdown this weekend.  Instead, artistic directors and producers Robin Staff, Sydney Skybetter and Tamara Greenfield have wisely cast them as “silent hosts” for the evening’s frivolities.  Lohse exits with a sign reading “The End” leaving us with the fading sound of the Cash’s in our ears after bringing back and holding up the entire Bang Group at gunpoint for a final bow.
But the true encore has already occurred. After the Big Finish, with Sloan’s shadow Annie fronting the company to a full chorus version of “There’s No Business…,” Parker takes the mic to introduce a charmingly political “bonus track.”  In a warm baritone to live keyboard accompaniment, he launches into “Old Fashioned Wedding,” a bonus hit itself from the 1966 Broadway revival of the musical.  When joined by Kazin, his real life and artistic partner and principal muse, the two turn into a vaudeville song and dance team trading rat-a-tat taps and vocal parts in the longest and most poignant number of the night.
At this point even the busy-ness of the cabaret seemed to settle as people put down their forks and glasses, and the waiters went into waiting. Parker’s innate New England reserve often serves to mute his wicked wit and socio-political incisiveness.  But beneath the cool exterior of his work as both creator and performer beats the vital heart of a champion entertainer.

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