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Friday, April 18, 2014

What Would Devo Do?

Danceworks Gets ‘Plugged In’

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Jason Powell is having a great spring. In March, the gifted Milwaukee composer/performer gave a celebrated turn as Narrator/Devil in Temptation’s Snare, the Igor Stravinsky adaptation he co-authored with Present Music and the Danceworks Performance Company (DPC). In May, Milwaukee Opera Theatre will revive his delightful 2012 comic operetta Fortuna the Time-Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom. This month, he’s supplying the spark for Plugged In, the new DPC concert opening April 24.

Powell starts the show with a set of original 1980s-style pop songs. “It’s like a reunion of the ’80s band you’ve never heard of, but that influenced all the others,” he says. “It comes from a place of affection.” The songs are homage to techno-pop bands like Devo and neo-romantics like Adam Ant and The Cure.

Abetted by Lighting Designer Edward Winslow, the DPC will grace Powell’s singing with choreographed images inspired by ’80s music videos. In studying the period videos, Artistic Director Dani Kuepper said she was struck by the strangeness of the images and their disconnect from literal interpretations of the lyrics. She compared them to abstract modern dance but “because it’s far away in time, I can’t tell if they thought these things were really cool or if they were making fun,” she said. “It’s a fine line. We play it sincere. We asked what Devo or The Cure would have done to accompany Jason’s songs.”

Powell’s songs gave Kuepper a unifying theme for the concert; namely, what is our relationship to popular music? To create material for the show’s middle section, she asked each dancer to create a solo to a pop song they knew well. Next, they transferred the steps onto music of different styles. These experiments produced a set of new dances by company members for their colleagues and guest dancers in a fourth-wall breaking nightclub setting complete with waitresses and “staged refills.”

The closing act features DJ Bizzon (Tyrone Miller), a leading nightclub DJ and educator. The DPC’s Joelle Worm will stage a choreographic improvisation for a mixed group of hip-hop and contemporary dance artists. Basic movement elements in both idioms were identified in rehearsal. They’ll provide the bridges between styles. Miller will improvise with and against the improvising dancers, switching among a playlist of classical remixes. “The DJ takes it to the next level,” Worm said.

Performances are April 24-26, and May 8-10, at Danceworks Studio Theatre, 1661 N. Water St., Thursdays at 8:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, call 414-277-8480 x6025 or visit danceworksmke.org.