Rhythm and Moves

Ever since early man and woman first shook their booties to a makeshift drumbeat on a prehistoric log, few cultural symbioses have been more elegant or innately automatic than the one between music and dance. But these days, some musicians and dancers say, that primitive dynamic has been dampened by the march of technology -- to the point that now, more often than not the art of movement is purveyed to canned music. It may be really cool music, but it's not live music, the kind that still provides the old, rhythmic give-and-take through time and space that's hot-wired into humans.

Luckily, in some cases it still takes two to tango, and metro-area audiences can have a taste of that magic Friday night when Creative Music Works presents a series of live duets between a mostly local mélange of dancers and musicians at Chautauqua Community House in Boulder. A seemingly simple concept, it's a kind of concert too infrequently seen in these parts.

"In the old days, people got together with their forms," says Boulder choreographer Tracey Jacobs, who's collaborating for the program with guitarist Rick Cummings. "Back then, all the greats worked with composers hand in hand, and the music and dance were created together. But people aren't that creative anymore -- we don't have the budgets for it." The lack of funding, Jacobs notes, sets off a chain reaction leading to what she perceives as cultural mediocrity: "People don't monitor the arts anymore. They aren't discriminating -- they're pacified by the norm. It's too easy to sit in your living room and turn on the TV. No one wants to get in their car and drive to Boulder to see a dance concert."

Jacobs says that happens because audiences aren't being engaged by their choices (in the Denver area, she implies, that means the Colorado Ballet and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble -- choices that are perhaps worthy, but also safe). "It would be nice if more space and money and support were being given to some things that may not seem so normal, but still have the potential to be great...if they get the support," she explains. "I believe in live performing arts. Dance is live -- it happens in the moment. Therefore, everything happening on stage should be happening in the same way. Even if you have to have taped music, you should try to have some kind of live accompaniment with that tape. That's what separates concert dancing from the TV screen."

In that spirit, Denver musician Mike Vargas has been working in the rarefied milieu of music-for-dance for several years. Vargas, the mastermind who teamed with Creative Music Works founder Alex Lemski to put on Friday's showcase, says it's not only unusual to see such an all-live dance concert, it's even more atypical to see one offering so much variety in terms of musical and choreographic styles. One thing all four duets should share, though, is that tenuous improvisatory mood that's so difficult to describe, yet so easy to comprehend when it's happening.

"You want it to feel as inspiring and as mysterious as something in the natural world," Vargas says, and that's both the charm and the rub of it. Conveying that unspoiled sense to the audience may be the greatest challenge musicians and dancers working together must face. A lot of that work, he notes, takes place in the dance studios, far from the lights of a stage performance. "A good class or workshop where everybody's focused on something so mysterious at the exclusion of everything else is just an ideal situation. It's what we wish would happen in the concert hall."

Vargas himself will team for the Boulder concert with East Coast dancer Nancy Stark Smith, with whom he worked intensively for three months in England last fall. "Nancy and I are both veteran improvisers in our respective media, and we both have a preference for having a structure to improvise within. For this piece, we're imposing various structures on ourselves independently, and then putting it all together. There's an example in it of every way you could possibly do it: dance by itself, music by itself, dance and music happening simultaneously but not relating to one another rhythmically. It verges on composition -- as Nancy puts it, she doesn't want to 'just get up there and dance around.' I feel the same way about the music. We both want our improvisation to yield a piece of art that's comparable to something that's been composed. It's just our preference."

Though he's uncertain about what the other program segments will entail, Vargas expects them to be freer than his work with Smith, but that's not a problem. "It's probably unusual, even in this dance community, to have such a wide range of aesthetics and approaches, side by side, happily coexisting," he says. "This is like being under the microscope -- all the creativity is right there on the fly, and there's nowhere to hide. That's exciting, both for the audience and for the performers."

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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