On July 15th and 16th of this year, my girlfriend, Tara King, presented a show. The idea was simple. She turned 30 this year, and for her birthday, she wanted to present 30 different dances by 30 different choreographers to the 30 top-charting singles from July 15th of every year from 1983 to the present
It was nothing short of superlative. It took me about a week of reminating and discussing it with so many people to realize that it wasn't just me who thought it was exceptional. I realize now that it is the best dance show I've seen, EVER. EVER EVER EVER. "I'm going to gush like a teenager" is the pattern for the rest of this entry, so get used to it.
I'm going to break one of my personal rules by writing about a show that was created by people I know personally, but this show was so amazing that I need a way to try my best to immortalize it in some small way. In light of recent studies that suggest that audience memory of modern dance tends to fade extremely quickly, I want to preserve my memories of this incredibly transcendant show in any way possible.
Full disclosure: I am biased, not only by the fact that this show is my girlfriend's pet project, and because some of my friends performed, but also because I contributed a small part of the evening by being in one dance. More on that later.
A gigantic amount of work went into this show. Three hour shows don't just happen, of course, no matter how spontaneous and fleeting dance sometimes seems. Not only did the dancers spend a ton of time putting it all together, but Tara and the BLB staff including Kristin Van Loon and Brian Gunsch put in a lot of planning for the show. My conservative estimate puts upwards of 400 hours into this project. Perhaps that's typical for a dance, but that's a shit ton of work, and it shows.
This show worked because Tara has built up some amazing connections in the dance community. She put out the call for choreographers to roughly 60 people, and half of those people responded. I'm sure some of the incredible response was the distributed and comparatively low stress nature of the bite-sized performances, but it still speaks incredibly about Tara's ability to make friends who will pitch in when Tara makes a request.
Sometimes, the Magic of Showbiz is Real
There were so many things that turned out to be perfect about the show, just by chance. Some of this must be selection bias, and some must be simply favorable interpretation in light of the greater show, but many things about the dance seem almost fated.
Case: Maren Ward's piece on mourning and memory just so happened to follow Emily Johnson's amazing nostalgic dance about Tara's past. Maren's piece could have followed Theresa Madaus's burlesque nun routine, or Sudha Setty and Ben Ficek's can-you-believe-this-crazy-video Duran Duran sendup, but it just so happened that it followed the one dance in the whole show which put the audience in the perfect mood for sentimentality.
Case: The music described an excellent arc, almost as if a DJ custom crafted it. The progression was perfect, starting with rock ballads of the 80s, migrating through to east coast dance in the early 90s to soulful R&B around the millenium, and finally culminating with full-blown club dance mixes by the time the show ended.
Case: The air conditioning in the theater was broken, or turned off, or otherwise inadequate, but it worked with the show instead of against it. The show's backbone is summer blockbuster music, in the heart of summer vacation, and uncomfortable atmosphere turned somehow into an asset, with the turgid humidity of a club.
Here's my completely inadequate summary of each dance. This is chronicle, not criticism.
1983 - Tom Carlson - Every Breath You Take by The Police
Tom starts off with the perfect prologue, with trumpet playing over the music track, dressed in a straight-outta-Miami-Vice outfit: hawaiian shirt, bermuda shorts and sandals, bright orange baseball cap, gigantic gold marijana leaf chain and mirrored aviators. He then addresses the overwhelming creepiness of the song by cutting off the music and just reciting the oh-so-awkward chorus about watching every move you make. Finally, he leads the crowd in a rendition of Happy Birthday. You can't ask for a much better way to set the stage -- this show's going to be about the music and about Tara's birthday.
1984 - Sally Rousse with Galen Treuer - When Doves Cry by Prince
Sally enters with glittery purple cape over a full tuxedo. As she turns around, she reveals slicked back hair and pencil-thin mustache -- this must be classic Prince costume, right. But it turns out this is just a riff on the look -- she's actually reveals herself to be a magician, including wand, top hat, and assistant, played in this case by Galen Treuer as a cigarette-smoking unicorn. Here's the first dance piece of the evening, fittingly performative and bombastic.
1985 - Sudha Setty and Ben Ficek - A View to a Kill by Duran Duran
I'm told that the Bond movie that this song was made for is terrible, and it's terribleness must be eclipsed only by the earnestness of the song, which in turn is ecliped only by the weirdness of the video. Rather than try to fight with the song or video, Sudha and Ben work with it and winkingly text-paint the lyrics or the verses in their chairs. And when the chorus comes on, it's classic wedding dance move time! The lawnmower, the sprinkler, the macarena, the vogue, and many other dances that all start with "the" all make appearances. If James Bond ever dances, I'm sure none of the controllers of the franchise would ever let him do moves like this, which just makes the sendup even better.
1986 - Charles Campbell - Invisible Touch by Genesis
Charles creates a dance that opens in complete darkness, and he turns on one one bike light on his head when the music starts, and starts covering and uncovering the light, offering us nothing more than the briefest glimpse of his face. Then, as the music kicks in, the light starts moving and we lose the face. One light becomes two, and then three, one in each of his hands. At this point, movement begins in earnest along one horizontal plane. The lights seem to exist on their own, modern bike fireflies. The dance is simple and straightforward, but magical in its effect nonetheless. It's the kind of dance that makes me wish that I had thought of it. Apparently Charles' first thought when he was assigned Invisible Touch was the time lapse photos of Picasso painting with light, and this dance is the result.
1987 - Chris Schlichting - Alone by Heart
The curtain opens to Chris behind a piano, with the keys hidden from our view as the audience. Then, he leans over the piano, and cue the music, which of course is 80s style synth and is only mildly reminiscent of a real piano. Still, Chris' straight face pulls it off, and it gets a great laugh from the audience, as does the follow up gag as Chris leans into the microphone several times as if he's about to sing, only to have the intro loop back. And eventually he just gives up the pretense of singing and wanders out from behind the piano to reveal that he's wearing nothing below his shirt but a sparkly gold pair of hotpants. And finally, to up the ante, he opens the back door to the BLB stage as the chorus bursts in. (The BLB is unique for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the back wall of the stage has a door that opens directly to the street.) As the light from the long summer night pours in, we the audience see reactions from the audience, which become the real show. People react in all kinds of ways to a man dancing on the sidewalk in hot pants, and all of them are entertaining. In one of the show's perfect coincidences, Charles' exercise in minimalist light was a natural lead-in to Chris' celebration of long summer days and the juxtaposition of bright outdoor light with the dark of the theater.
1988 - Laurie Van Wieren - The Flame by Cheap Trick
The curtain is closed, and a spot goes up as a cell phone comes through the curtain, playing the song very quietly. The phone is held by a hand that stops coming out from the curtain once we see a wrist. Then the music kicks in over the loudspeaker, and we suddently see Laurie's face appear through the curtain, concealed so that it is almost as if the face is coming out of liquid. Laurie's disembodied face then begins looking extremely soulfully at the audience, directly into the eyes of nearby audience members, on the verge of tears. The face and hand recede into the curtain as the music fades out. Nothing like a little bit of soulful eye contact to accompany the last of the 80s rock ballads in this show.
1989 - Max Wirsing - If You Don't Know My by Now by Simply Red
I barely see this one, as I am starting to prepare for my own dance. Pieced together later from the little I see and hear later, Max practices pirouettes repeatedly. Pirouettes are notoriously difficult, and Max struggles, I think because is is having difficulty and not because he's playacting, though he's experienced enough that it's possible he does in fact know how to do a perfect pirouette. To help him with his technique, he recruits the dance experts of Minneapolis, represented in this case by all of those present who had won the most prestigious Minneapolis dance grant, the McKnight Fellowship. Of course, many of these artists have little to no background in ballet, so the advice runs from technical tips ("Center your weight") to inane ("Take your shirt off."). The seeming futility of repetition provides the new take on the song. The pirouette: "If you don't know me by now, you will never ever really know me."
1990 - Huck and Buck Wilde - She Ain't Worth It by Glenn Medeiros feat. Bobby Brown
This one I saw even less than Max's, as it directly preceded mine and I had to stay backstage to be ready for my entrance. I saw hammer pants, and heard tell of corn and butter. I eagerly await the video, because I heard a lot of great stuff about this one.
1991 - Paul Schulzetenberg with Trista King and Jim King - Unbelievable by EMF
First, I want to acknowledge that this was all Trista and Jim's idea. Trista and Jim are Tara's sister and father respectively. I certainly did my fair share to put the dance together, but they helped a ton, and her mother and stepmother all pitched in as well.
This was a vanity dance created especially for Tara. She's one of the three members of Mad King Thomas, a superstar dance trio here in Minneapolis who collectively convinced me that dance is something I should pay attention to. This dance is a very brief version of MKT's biggest hits, something which we prepared by doing a bunch of research and borrowing a bunch of props. We hit a lot of MKT's most popular tropes, including cardboard hearts, sendups of high art, bicycles, and polar bears doing Beyonce. I can't speak objectively about the quality, but the audience seems to like it, and more importantly, Tara is thrilled.
1992 - Angharad Davies - Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-A-Lot
What do you do with a song that is one of the most enduring pop culture pieces of the last 25 years? Why, you play off the obsession with the female figure by putting an 8 1/2 month's pregnant woman up there, and she knocks it dead. This is another piece I saw only the barest snippets of, but again, reaction was extremely positive.
1993 - Anna Marie Shogren - Weak by SVW
Anna, a Minneapolis dancer who has since moved to New York, was able to be there through a video submission. She created a video for the song, part site-specific dance, part literal examination of what being "weak in the knees" looks, feels, and, most importantly, dances like. This one you can see in all of its glory online.
1994 - Galen Treuer - I Swear by All-4-One
Galen goes to the source for this one, bypassing the #1 hit by the R&B group, and going instead to the country version that John Michael Montgomery came out with first. He comes out in some Cowboy Boots, Wranglers, and a silk shirt with a western cowboy print on it, and just stands there while Evy Muench looks up adoringly. Galen occupies the song by staring with intense manly feeling at something in the middle distance for the first minute or so, before changing it up and... shifting his weight to the other leg. The song segues into The All-4-One version briefly while Evy produces a pair of scissors, which she immediatly uses to begin cutting up the leg of the jeans, eventually getting to the pocket, which turns out to be filled with glitter, which explodes everywhere, including all over Evy's face, which, when combined with her position on her knees in front of Galen, is reminiscent of nothing so much as a glitter cumshot. MKT would be proud. This is the second time in the night we see notable facial expression as major focus of dance, a theme earlier examined in Laurie Van Wieren's piece.
1995 - Evy Muench - Waterfalls by TLC
Evy stays on stage for her own piece, a solo which follows the form of the music. When the music goes into a chorus, Evy goes into a chorus, when the music does a verse, Evy does something slightly different, but thematically similar to the rest of her dancing. It's a particularly good choice with this song, which in many ways rides on its almost hypnotic lyrics to tie its diverse verses together. It's not a dance idea you see commonly applied outside of broadway musicals, and it's worth watching to see such a traditional idea juxtaposed with modern movement.
1996 - Emily Johnson - How Do You Want it/California Love by 2Pac
This is the only dual single on this list, though it's pretty clear that the reason it made it to the top is because of California Love. Emily makes it intensely personal for Tara, by spinning a magical web of Tara's life. Some of the stuff is true, some of it is straight fiction, but it interweaves to create a magical tableau. And, in the middle, there's a surprise shot of tequila for Tara, and a bunch of Reddi whip on a plate for all to share. This dance hits Tara pretty hard, as she's sitting there with her family and already has lots of connections to New Mexico, and the dance runs heavy on both.
1997 - Maren Ward - I'll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy & Faith Evans feat. 112
Maren perfectly dovetails with the contemplative mood that Emily put us in by doing a straight up tribute. Maren pulls off a somewhat maudlin song by embracing the feeling wholeheartedly. There's no irony, no winking at the audience, just an intensely convincing and personal display of emotion, dealing with grief and what it means to be left behind when our loved ones have left us.
1998 - HIJACK - The Boy Is Mine by Brandy and Monica
It's downright funny to hear HIJACK tackle such a heteronormative song. They both embrace and mock the song by robotically repeating "The boy is mine" in time to the music, but entirely divorced from both emotion and without any regard to things like choruses. They do this while dancing around a quadrant of chairs and barstools, all while keeping their eye firmly locked on one another. Eventually, they dispense with pretense and veer into the absurd by changing the chant to "The chair is mine." It's classic HIJACK -- repetitive and compelling.
1999 - Emily Gastineu - Bills, Bills, Bills by Destiny's Child
Emily comes out dressed like a 50s housewife in polka dot dress, with antiquated polished steel toaster and a couple slices of bread. She goes to the video for her inspiration for this one, taking the mostly throwaway dance moves at the end of the original videos and structuring the entirety of the dance around them. Throw in a very angry bread-eating and then bread-stomping demonstration for good measure, and you get an interesting reexamination of the power structure behind money and what it means to be female in a relationship.
2000 - Jim Lieberthal - Everything You Want by Vertical Horizon
Jim brings it back to the personal by focusing on Tara, and what it means to have a monument birthday, telling the story of the birthday boat. The birthday boat, is a metaphor in this case for time, and how it passes by and we mark it by monuments that approach, coexist with us briefly, and then recede. He then segues into the song, but tweaks it by replacing the lyrics to the chorus so that it becomes "Your birthday's what you want/ Your birthday's what you need" etc. Finally, he pulls off his shirt to reveal a black leotard with flames, and tells Tara that no matter what happens, she's still hot.
2001 - Ashleigh Penrod - U Remind Me by Usher
Ashleigh starts with the music video. Usher's not an easy dancer to imitate, but Ashleigh does a pretty good Usher impression. In some ways, this is a lot like a good drag act -- there's an aspect of simulation here, but it lives and dies on the strength of its performer. Ashleigh pulls it off. This is one of the songs that I didn't really know that I fell in love with from this show, and a large part of that is Ashleigh's dance.
2002 - Judith Howard - Hot in Herre by Nelly
Back to Tara's past. Judith digs out a piece that Tara choreographed waaaaay back in college, and uses it as a riff to delve into her famous closet and pull out a Carmen Miranda hat, wicked boots, and some incredible skirt. Judith shimmies, slides, and jerks her way through an aesthetic that I remember well from when I first met Tara in college. An excellent tribute.
2003 - Megan Mayer - Crazy in Love by Beyonce feat. Jay-Z
Mayer comes out dressed as John McEnroe, complete with all white outfit, wooden tennis racket, towel and waterbottle, and sporting the wonderful afro-with-headband look that defined McEnroe's playing career. Then, to complement the song, a video starts playing of a Bjorn Borg lookalike, and McEnroe/Mayer starts a classic McEnroe freakout, complete with towel-throwing, shouting, and thrashing. It's a neat spin on the pop love song, reimagined as famous sports rivalry.
2004 - Paige Collette - Burn by Usher
Paige comes out in a Sunday dress, wig, and pearls. The curtain opens with a table on stage, and she begins addressing the crowd directly and making food, a la a cooking show. However, it becomes quickly apparent that this is a mockery of cooking shows, as the cookies prove to be from a tube, and Paige comes to the theme of the song, and it becomes first about burning cookies, and then about vaginal discomfort a.k.a. burning. This then begins an odyssey of a striptease, characterized by not smoothness and sensuality, but anger, thrashing, discomfort, and tearing of clothes. The moment that had everybody talking afterwards was not when the pasty fell off, but rather when the cover up used as a replacement was... cookie dough.
2005 - Melissa Birch - We Belong Together by Mariah Carey
Melissa Birch comes out, takes the mike stand, and gives an absolutely fantastic a capella rendition of Mariah Carey, complete with incredible range. This takes incredible talent and bravery, and I, as a former singer, was quite impressed.
2006 - Supergroup - Promiscuous by Nelly Furtado feat. Timbaland
According to Supergroup after the show, none of them particularly liked this song, so they decided to find a different version: a smooth jazz version. And what do you get when you smooth jazzify a song called promiscuous girl. Why, you set the song in a nursing home and have three lead characters slowly eat jello and make out every time a chorus rolls around. This is another sendup of pop music, and another one of those "why didn't anybody do this before?" moments that's so simple and so, so perfect.
2007 - Monica Thomas - Umbrella by Rihanna feat. Jay-Z
Monica comes out in a skimpy dress and cavorts a bit, and then it's on to reveal an umbrella, in an homage to the original music video. And what do you do to top the video in a live setting? Why, you go into the audience and you take their water, splash it everywhere, and basically make everybody think that music videos are for the weak, because real dancers do it live. Excellent spotlighting in this piece sets the water off perfectly, as Monica is silouetted and the water that she steals from the audience sparkles as it is sprayed around.
2008 - Theresa Madaus - I Kissed a Girl by Katy Perry
We're well into the burlesque section of the night, appropriate as the #1 hits begin getting more and more club driven. Theresa references both her own Catholic upbringing and her adult life as she plays a nun who just so happens to have kissed a girl and liked it. A rosary gets eaten, Jesus is referenced as her boyfriend and at the end it's all down to some shiny gold tape and hotpants. Just the way burlesque was designed to be.
2009 - Laura Holway - I Gotta Feeling by Black Eyed Peas
Everybody has those Saturday nights where they feel really depressed as they sit in their apartment and waste away the evening wishing that they had some reason to get out. Holway takes the song as an exhortation, in addition to its anthemic roots. It becomes the catalyst for her to break out of the implications of her bathrobe costume, stop eating cheetos, start dancing around, and get a whole crowd up on stage dancing and cavorting and asserting that yes, tonight's gonna to be a good good night.
2010 - Nick Lemere - California Gurls by Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg
Back to burlesque. Did I mention the songs are all dance classics at this point? Nick comes out in a bikini top and shorts and does a routine that simultaneously sends up Katy Perry and explores the space of the BLB. Particularly great is the expression that Nick manages to wear the whole time, a look that says that his character is trying to be mysterious but kind of looks a bit vacant instead. If that's not enough to say "Yo, this is Katy Perry," at the end you get beach balls attached to a bra, just in case you missed her allure.
2011 - Taja Will - Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO
This was a truly incredible moment, especially on the second night. It just happened that Tara's uncle Bill had passed away the previous night after a long battle with cancer. Tara gave a short, emotional speech about him, and then put Taja in a very difficult place by giving her the crown. Taja, then, whips out an interactive Tai Chi dance. Because, you know, what else are you going to do with this already painfully self-aware song? Why, you fight it with earnestness! On the second night, it was a great way to pay tribute to Bill, to the night that we were having, and to Tara.
2012 - Trista King - Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen
Trista wanted the last dance of the evening. She brings the show back to the beginning by coming back to Tara's childhood. She dances in a bunch of Tara's old competition dance outfits with moves straight out of competition dancing, and pictures of wee little Tara on the projector. At the end it turns into a group dance as everybody gets on stage and then dances around a bit before the show ends triumphantly.
There's a lot of reasons this show was incredible. It got a lot of dancers to go outside of their usual styles in a way that encouraged some very fresh ideas. There just so happened to be a really neat arc of songs and dance that started with contemplative and light 80s pop rock and ended with bombastic 2000s dance club hits. There was an obvious personal investment, as I had a lot relying on this show. But more than anything else, it was the people that made it, all giving their time and effort to put together a once-in-a-lifetime dance show that really, truly, is better than any other dance show I've ever seen.
This is, by far, the easiest 10 star rating I've given on this blog. Way to go, Tara.