The phrases "small-town America" and "modern dance" don't often appear in close association. Yet it is this unexpected pairing that inspires choreographer and dancer Joy French. It inspires her so much, in fact, that she founded a dance company in order to explore the relationship between the two. French's brainchild, Bare Bait Dance, is one of only two professional dance companies in Montana and is the company-in-residence at Missoula's Downtown Dance Collective. At the heart of its creation in 2011 was one primary goal: to make dance in Montana, for Montanans, especially for and about those living in the places where modern dance rarely goes.
The company's premier performance, Views from Grandma's Porch, dives deeply and wholeheartedly into this project. The result is a smart, well-rendered, evening-length offering of modern dance, based on personal experience, research and mythology about America's tiny and often forgotten towns.
The show opens in stillness, the entire 13-member cast, plus French, standing in a loose grid in jeans and white shirts. From here, they launch not into movement but dialogue. One by one, the cast begins recounting stories about small-town life. Soon, a jumble of language fills the space, tales overlapping and intertwining, suggesting the pervasiveness of lore and legend. Slowly the talk fades and the company moves in unison through a long gestural sequence and finally back to stillness. French passes among the grid of dancers as though through town blocks, relating stories from her own family's past. Her mother and father grew up in the same small town in Missouri, and though her account begins cheerfully enoughpies, porches, grandmothersit quickly becomes clear that since her parents' childhood, this place has met the same fate as so many others throughout the nation: It has fallen on hard times, the school torn down, the one hotel shuttered, the streets pocked with potholes. French wraps up her monologue with the telling lines "This town? My mother doesn't even know this town."
This is the thematic thread that runs through the whole show: a mix of nostalgia and hard honesty about the present. It's clear that French knows of both the mythology and the grim realities of small towns, and her work intentionally leads the audience on a tour through both.
In the section "The Land," several dancers in overalls represent farmers, eking out an existence on the landscape for generations. Their movements are deliberate and measured, purposeful. Soon their "work" is interrupted by a dancer in a suit, her movements full of flash. When she is joined by other suited dancers and they launch into a techno-driven, up-tempo segment, the farmers are captivated. Soon the two groups become intertwined and dependent upon one another in their movements. It's clear that the suits loosely represent "progress," but beyond that, French challenges the audience to bring their own interpretations. Is this the duet of banks and farmers? Government-sponsored farm bills, or the advent of agribusiness? Perhaps it represents a more intimate dynamic, that in which farm families rely on one member who leaves the farm and works in town.
In the hilarious and poignant section "News," a trio of dancers in floral dresses embodies patterns of gossip, flinging teacups and saucers and glances. Soon they're joined by others, and together they become a town embroiled in whispers and tale-telling. When one of their own is pushed to her limitsasked to bear too much, to perform to ridiculous expectationsthey band together to come to her aid and guide her to safety. It is in the dance's symbolic moments such as this that the heart of the small town becomes fully evident.
There were few shortcomings in this performance. A couple of the sections seemed to go on a bit longer than necessary, but not by much. The score, written for the performance by Geoff Pepos, augmented the experience for the most part, but in a few sections was distracting; the volume was far too high on opening night. However, Pepos's utilization of sound (birds, dogs barking, machinery, thunder) was great, and a number of the songs he composed were well-paired with the movement.
This is intelligent, thoughtful dance at its finest, and French's willingness to create work that speaks directly to a different audience is refreshing. That is not to imply the work is unprofessionalon the contrary. A truly professional artistic director acknowledges the audiences' role in any performance. Case in point? Here, the audience is asked to write a few of their own small-town stories on response cards, which are collected during intermission. The first section performed after intermission is created on the spot, based on what the audience wrote.
This willingness to engage beyond the stage makes the Bare Bait company stand out. When they take the show on the road this summer, to community halls and church basements in Montana's out-of-the-way places, they will be making great strides toward proving how well small-town America and modern dance can compliment one anotherlike pie and grandma's porch.
Views from Grandma's Porch continues at the Downtown Dance Collective Fri., March 30, and Sat., March 31, at 8 PM nightly with a 2 PM matinee on Sat. $10/$8 students and seniors. Advance tickets available at the DDC.