In classical narrative ballet like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, music provides an emotional undercurrent, while the story itself is told through dance and gesture, costume and set. In Peter Pucci’s newest ballet, the old rules don’t apply.
Scheduled to premiere on Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet (SSB) this Sunday, April 27, Dream On By is a series of dance scenes set to the songs of Paul Simon. The dance itself doesn’t tell any particular story. Instead, Simon’s lyrics evoke themes of youth, love, loss, and celebration — resonant, emotional subjects that inspired Pucci to create movement.
“I went to see Paul Simon live at a Memorial Day concert in Greenwich, Connecticut, a few years ago,” the New York–based choreographer explained over the phone last week. “He had this 17-member band, and they gave an amazing, fresh performance. It’s this iconic music that I grew up with, and it’s rhythmically interesting. That was when I started thinking about creating dances to his songs.”
With the go-ahead from Rodney Gustafson at SSB, and official permission from the artist himself, Pucci began sifting through Simon’s vast catalogue; he listened to more than 20 albums and read a number of books, eventually settling on 10 songs that felt right to him. Many of the works he chose date from the mid-1970s, shortly after Simon struck out on his own. Among those tracks are “Kodachrome,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” and “Tenderness,” all from the 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.
“Lyrically, I think Simon is one of the greatest songwriters in this country,” Pucci said. Yet as much as he admired the music, Pucci was clear he didn’t want to use dance to “act out” the lyrics of Simon’s songs; instead, he thought of the lyrics as providing “a visual landscape.”
“I read somewhere that when he was in his twenties, [Art] Garfunkel went to retirement homes and recorded people talking about their memories,” Pucci said. “I found this really moving, that a young man would think to capture those stories.” And so the choreographer began to see his ballet as a series of snapshots — a stream of memories.
One of the challenges Pucci didn’t anticipate was that the dancers of State Street Ballet — many of them in their late teens and twenties — would not be familiar with Simon’s oeuvre. Determined to draw them into the music, Pucci not only made the tracks available to his cast; he also posted the lyrics on the studio wall, so dancers could memorize the words and reflect on their meaning.
As a longtime professional dancer himself, Pucci always loved being given the freedom to interpret a choreographer’s vision, and with Dream On By he has tried to offer SSB dancers the opportunity to invest emotionally and theatrically in the work. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth,” he explained of the choreographic process. Though Pucci has capitalized on the abilities of his cast, don’t expect purely classical ballet technique. His background includes nine years with the acrobatic Pilobolus Dance Theatre; he knows how to use weight, as well as weightlessness.
At about 25 minutes, Pucci’s ballet won’t take up the entire evening. Also on the Dream On By program are works by Robert Sund, Autumn Eckman, and current SSB dancer Samantha Bell, with music ranging from Duke Ellington to Patsy Cline to the more contemporary Juno Reactor and Zap Mama. The inclusion of a company member’s work in a fully professional program marks a first for the company.
Former SSB dancer Eckman has created a new, large ensemble work specifically for this production. Inspired by what she described as the “earthy, Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals” of Zap Mama, she has worked to fuse classical ballet, jazz, and European contemporary techniques. “Stylistically, it’s very high-energy, upbeat, and passionate,” Eckman said of the untitled work. “You can’t help but want to move when you hear this music.”
For those wondering what to expect from this eclectic evening of dance and music, there’s no better source than Simon’s lyrics: it’s late in the evening / and the music’s seeping through.
State Street Ballet will perform Dream On By at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.