Foot Notes: "American Legends: Johnny, Sammy and Stevie"

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

The precision and versatility we've come to expect from BalletMet Columbus are on display in the company's season-finale performance, "American Legends: Johnny, Sammy and Stevie." In the process, though, these three world premieres also serve as a lesson in different approaches to choreography.

You might call it the obvious versus the inspired.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the obvious - it suffers only in comparison. One obvious good was 16-year-old BalletMet Dance Academy student Christopher Evans, who impressed mightily with the flashy "Colas Variation" from Alexander Gorsky's "La Fille mal gardee."

It's an obviously inspired idea to set choreographer Maurice Hines loose with the music of Stevie Wonder. But Hines' "Wonderful," as lively and comical as it often is, never lives up to its title. From the slap-happy "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" to the shoulder action of "Superstition," it's all fun but exactly what you'd expect.

Darrell Grand Moultrie proved his choreographic bona fides with 2008's infectious "Square Off." But even with the added tap choreography of Marshall L. Davis Jr., "Simply Sammy" suffers from some of the same over-eagerness-to-please entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. did. The highlight here is Davis tapping in time to Sammy's scatting in "Love Me or Leave Me."

What makes "American Legends" a must-see for any dance lover, though, is choreographer James Kudelka. The only thing obvious about his "The Man in Black" is its title, a reference to Johnny Cash.

Rather than choosing any of Cash's many familiar hits, Kudelka goes with six covers, mostly from the "American" series of recordings the singer made in the last years of his life. "The Man in Black" opens with Cash's rendition of the Beatles' "In My Life," sung in so uncertain, so quavering a voice, that a listener is taken aback.

Kudelka has the four dancers (Olivia Clark, Jimmy Orrante, Jackson Sarver and David Tlaiye) begin in, and repeatedly return to, tight circles that seem to pay distant tribute to country-western line dancing. Just as a listener is emotionally taken aback by Cash's voice, one of the dancers is visibly taken aback, stopping with both arms crooked in open-palmed gestures.

"The Man in Black" tells no literal story, but at such moments throughout, the movement and the voice intersect: when the dancers shield their eyes at the refrain ("Damn your eyes") of Tex Ritter's "Sam Hall," for example, or when they point to their heads as Cash croons Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind."

In obvious contrast to the breathless extravagance of Hines and Moultrie, Kudelka crafted a quiet, subtle, inspired masterpiece.

"American Legends: Johnny, Sammy and Stevie"

When: Through May 1

Where: Riffe Center's Capitol Theatre, Downtown