Thursday, October 29, 2009
Sunset Center’s 2009-10 season was designed to bring an assorted collection of cultures to Carmel. This week works as a microcosm of that eclectic array, with a trio of sassy vocal chameleons and a dance troupe as flexible as Gumby – and inspired by fungus – coming to town.
On Friday, Oct. 30, 3 Mo’ Divas launches into a harmonious journey covering 10 different musical genres and spanning hundreds of years of music history in a single show.
Divas was conceived by director-choreographer Marion J. Caffey in 2004 as a follow-up to his 6-year-old touring show “Three Mo’ Tenors,” inspired by “The Three Tenors.” After five years, the show has become a national touring phenomenon visiting everywhere from Harlem’s Apollo Theater to Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Canada.
After several incarnations, the current trio of singers – Laurice Lanier, Nova Y. Payton and Jamet Pittman – is the tour’s tightest to date, legitimizing its claim that the Divas are among the top classically-trained vocalists on tour today.
Their range is a crucial part of that credibility: At the drop of a hat, they can transition from a raucous rendition of the Little Shop of Horrors theme song to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” to an intense interpretation of “Uando M’en Vo” from La Boheme.
Rigorous training helps make those challenging assignments possible but far from easy. Pittman – who studied at Oberlin Conservatory, received a master’s degree in vocal performance with a concentration in opera from the Catholic University of America and auditioned for Divas while she was still a cast member in Baz Luhrmann’s production of La Bohéme on Broadway – says mastering the different styles of music the Divas perform can be just as challenging as singing the most complex opera.
“I grew up listening to gospel and country music and then studied a lot of classical and opera, so sometimes it’s hard to make a particular style, like jazz, sound authentic,” she says. “I am my toughest critic.”
One of the most powerful moments in the current show is Pittman’s performance of Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change.”
“It’s a hard song for me to perform because of all the emotional meaning behind it,” she says. “And it comes right after Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ which is about lynching in the South, and that also has deep emotional meaning for me.”
The Divas and their director perpetually evolve the show’s repertoire. Pittman hopes to cover the salsa piece “Bésame Mucho.”
“We need a Latin flare,” she says. “It would be a great aspect of the show.”
She adds that the trio is fun enough to be a part of that she’s “going to ride until the wheels fall off.”
“I believe in the project; it’s time America sees real singing without any manipulation,” she says. “It’s good, clean music in a good, clean show.”
~ ~ ~
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, the experimental dance troupe Pilobolus mesmerizes minds with movements as varied as the Divas’ voices.
Oscar fans might find the moves familiar. Throughout the broadcast of the 2007 Academy Awards, near-nude dancers warped, twisted and wrapped their bodies into unprecedented positions behind a translucent screen. Multiple dancers melded into single shapes, forming scenes from movies like The Departed, Happy Feet and Snakes on a Plane, even pausing to create a human formation of the Oscar statuette.
For a subversive dance troupe that never expected to be around long after its start nearly 40 years ago, performing on an internationally televised awards show was a heady accomplishment.
Pilobolus began in a Dartmouth College dance class taught by Alison Chase in 1971, taking its name from a fungus that commonly grows on herbivore dung. By the late ’70s, the troupe was making vignettes for Sesame Street, which helped catalyze its reputation in dance circles for revolutionary movement.
“Pilobolus invented a whole new way to move, combining athleticism, science and the body,” Charles Reinhart, director of the American Dance Festival, told 60 Minutes, adding that there had never previously been a style of dance that was characterized by physical contortions of the human form through weight-sharing and body-entwining.
The original members – Robby Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, Nicholas Bochte and Jonathan Wolken – eventually grew too old to lift and contort, so they handpicked other dancers, and the founders concentrated on choreographing the company, which continues to tour worldwide and has expanded to include four branches.
Pilobolus remains the only professional modern dance company directed through group collaboration using improvisational techniques. Pendleton explained Pilobolus’ process in Ballet Dance Magazine: “We may spend a couple of weeks on what we call gathering material; in a way it’s just like an improvisation,” he says. “We go into the studio and just work and play on various moves. One move may link to another, or you may find a particular image that will allow you to start thinking in terms of where a piece may go. Eventually, we might begin to focus in on one particular idea from the movement. Then the piece starts to develop.”
The Pilobolus Dance Theater is constantly pushing boundaries with the themes of its new works. Some are dreamlike and existential, and others are literal tales of human nature. Among the components PDT will explore in Carmel are Pendleton’s “Day Two,” about primitive instincts, sexuality and ritual; and one of Pilobolus’ most recent works, “Dog•id,” about a girl trapped in a shadow fantasy.
3 Mo’ Divas perform at 8pm Friday, Oct. 30, $52-$77. Pilobolus performs 8pm, Wednesday, Nov. 4, $52-$77. Both shows take place at the Sunset Center, San Carlos at Ninth, Carmel. 620-2048.