Dance is often considered the ultimate art form, one that uses the original instrument — the human body — as the medium for its message. When that artistic message also involves social commentary, dance can have a profound impact on its audience.
Madison’s Kanopy Dance Company will revive one of the medium’s most provocative and compelling works this month as part of Juxtaposed, its fall program scheduled Nov. 13-15 at Overture Center.
“Lynchtown,” created in 1936 by modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman, explores the buildup to and aftermath of a public lynching. As an essay on mob violence, the work is a chilling exploration of the nadir of a human condition that has unfortunate echoes in current times.
The deed itself is not shown, but that doesn’t prevent the dance from being any less frightening and grotesque, both in its concept and execution, according to Lisa Thurrell, a Kanopy co-artistic director, along with Robert E. Cleary.
“The dance reveals the building of mob lust and violence, with one character serving the instigator who riles everyone to action,” Thurrell explains. “The dance is abstracted, yet literal enough to reveal the action.”
Weidman himself composed the music for the piece, and can be heard playing percussion on the recording that accompanies the performance.
“’Lynchtown’ was designed as social commentary and both critics and dancers loved the work,” Cleary says. “Charles toured it all over the country, and it was received well in New York, but not well in the South.”
Weidman, who died in 1975 at age 73, was at the height of his career when he created “Lynchtown.” Weidman, a former dance partner of Martha Graham who worked closely with Doris Humphrey, brought an entirely new aesthetic to modern dance, making it a truly American art form, Thurrell explains.
“Charles founded an entire philosophy and design for dance based on the physical dynamics of ‘fall and recovery,’ ‘suspension and release’ and more,” Thurrell says. “It’s a technique built upon the physical body moving through space and time, and it differed in many ways from Martha Graham’s philosophy of breath, contraction and release, yet there are similarities of the use of gravity, momentum and form.”
“Lynchtown” is just one of several compelling numbers that comprise Juxtaposed, each of which contrasts the pieces on either side of it as the program’s title suggests. “Lynchtown” is most directly contrasted with the other big work on the program: “Promise,” created and performed by Chicago’s Winifred Haun & Dancers.
“’Promise,’ based on John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, explores themes of depravity, beneficence, love, the struggle for acceptance, and the capacity for self-destruction,” Cleary explains. “We invited Winifred Haun to guest in the production and — serendipity! — she was working on ‘Promise,’ and so we chose the rest of the dances in the concert to enhance, balance and contrast that 30-minute work.”
Works by both Thurrell and Cleary round out the performance.
Thurrell’s “Come Months, Come Away” takes the poetic works of Emily Bronte, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelly as its inspiration for an exploration of the various months of the year. From the dusty images of autumn to Keats’ bright, jubilant poetic voice, Thurrell’s work embraces the seasons through the lens of 20th-century Romanticism.
Cleary’s more chilling “This is Not America” taps the music of Phillip Glass and the Ahn Trio to create a visceral dance that explores the corruption of those in power, the fate of one falsely accused, and the blind eye taken by the privileged classes. Finally, Thurrell’s “Prayer,” performed to the music of Arvo Part, explores the contrast of quiet exaltation balanced with fear and discord. The work rounds out the show, Thurrell says.
“It’s a prayer for the soul,” she adds.
Kanopy Dance Company presents Juxtaposed Nov. 13-15 at Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. For tickets, call 608-258-4141 or visit
Kanopy Dance’s Upcoming Season
Juxtaposed opens Kanopy Dance Company’s 2015–16 season, but there is more in store for the Madison-based company, performing at Overture Center, 201 State St.
St. Valentine’s Day takes on a different tone this year with Rioult: Hearts Entwined, featuring former Martha Graham principal dancers Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring. The company will perform “Wein,” Rioult’s dark masterpiece about the decadence and decay of Viennese society, danced to a Viennese waltz composed by Maurice Ravel, as well as two romantic works and new compositions by Kanopy co-artistic directors Robert E. Cleary and Lisa Thurrell. The program runs Feb. 12-14.
Kanopy’s season closes April 8-10 with Bloom, a spring celebration featuring guest artist and New York City choreographer Stanley Love. Works by Love, Kanopy’s Cleary and Anna Betz, New York choreographer Ede Thurrell and audience favorite Kiro Kopulos will fill the stage.