Some songs make us want to sing along or bust out some spontaneous dance moves. Yet staging a dance to popular music presents a special set of challenges: How does one find movement that complements the broad appeal of a classic hit or the energy of an anthem?
Last Saturday, State Street Ballet (SSB) took on the challenge in a mixed bill of new works set to familiar tunes from such greats as Paul Simon, Patsy Cline, and Bing Crosby, as well as high-energy tracks by Juno Reactor and Zap Mama. It was an evening of catchy melodies and toe-tapping rhythms, and a chance for four choreographers to showcase their unique approaches to working with popular music.
The program opened with Peter Pucci’s Dream On By, a series of loosely narrative scenes inspired by the music of Paul Simon. From “Kodachrome” to “American Tune,” what makes these songs so satisfying is the lyrical turbulence beneath their disarmingly buoyant melodies. Pucci’s interpretation floated closer to the surface, with dancers in silky pajama pants grinning gleefully as they arranged themselves in a series of geometrical floor patterns and performed gestures in unison; they pumped their arms up and down from the elbow like pistons and then patted their shoulders, hips, and knees in a variation on the Macarena. In one of the most effective passages, dancers spun across the stage like windblown seedpods, whirling almost out of control.
This program marked the first time a current SSB dancer has presented work alongside professionals. Samantha Bell’s brief “Pistolero” captured the music’s throbbing energy as women in Spanish-style petticoats and bodices darted among men with bandoliers slung over their shoulders. Heads whipped, skirts flew, and there was conquest before the curtain came down.
In the latter half of the evening, San Francisco–based choreographer Robert Sund showed a series of short works set to music from earlier eras in American history. Dancers Leila Drake and Ryan Camou shared a riveting and tense duet to Patsy Cline’s “Strange.” Former SSB member Autumn Eckman appeared for a Fosse-esque solo involving a chair and a good deal of anguish, accompanied by Billie Holiday’s quavering lovesick ballad “In My Solitude.”
The show closed with Eckman’s “Yoruba,” inspired by and set to the music of Afro-pop group Zap Mama. In lime-green leotards with orange accents, the dancers were transformed into wild jungle creatures that leapt and spun, pausing only for the occasional perch before buzzing off again. In its joyous exuberance and tight sculptural arrangements, “Yoruba” made a fitting complement to its uplifting score.