From Berlin to Fosse
Third Avenue Dance presents fall concert

SideStory: Third Ave. Dance fall performance schedule

Dancers with the Third Ave. Dance Co. rehearse the number "Sad/Happy" last week at the Smiley Auditorium. The piece, which is about facing old age and premiered on the West Coast last October, was done by legendary Seattle choreographer Wade Madsen, who came to Durango to coach the dance troupe./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Judith Reynolds

With a nod to Irving Berlin, the Third Avenue Dance Co. has titled its sixth anniversary fall concert: “Face the Music and Dance.” Opening Fri., Oct. 13, performances will run two weekends with two matinees. The program features two major new works, four shorter pieces, and a rousing tribute to America’s legendary jazz choreographer: the late, great Bob Fosse.

One of the new works is “Swirl, Dip, Glide,” by Boulder choreographer Nancy Cranbourne over a Diana Krall rendition of Berlin’s famous tune: “There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”

In 1932, that song made Berlin’s Broadway comeback possible. In the midst of the Great Depression, he’d hit a dry spell. His new musical, “Face the Music,” pulled him out. It was a solid hit because the material offered a devil-may-care alternative to the harsh realities of the time. It would be years before Berlin composed some of America’s most favorite songs: “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.” But he always knew how to tap the nerve of nostalgia in the middle of hard times.

As a theme, “Face the Music” is a natural for troubled times. It’s also a perfect choice for the right company. Using Krall’s jazzy interpretation, Cranbourne spoofs ballroom dancing. Apparently, Third Avenue couldn’t resist.

“‘Swirl, Dip, Glide’ pokes fun at everything,” company co-founder Suzy DiSanto said in an interview last week. “It also spoofs the cha-cha, the mambo, even the ‘look’ of ballroom dancers. There are no men in the piece, but their presence is implied.”

Imagine the faux-serious looks ballroomers give each other plus stylized movements and it’s “all the funnier,” DiSanto said.

The other major new work reflects the concert title in a different way. “Sad/Happy” is an unusual take on the idea of facing the music (life, time and death) by facing old age. It’s a relatively new piece (premiered on the West Coast last October) by the legendary Seattle choreographer Wade Madsen.

“He’s the grandfather of the Seattle dance world,” DiSanto said.

Read Dance Magazine or any number of articles written in Seattle’s newspapers and you’ll learn that Madsen is a one-man artistic movement. Born and educated in Albuquerque, Madsen took his tall frame and signature fluidity to Seattle in 1976. He all but started a dance revolution and is at the center of a thriving dance culture. Now 51, Madsen is still very tall, energetic and engaging. In person he’s nowhere near the cliché of a grandfather. In earlier years, he toured with professional troupes. Now he has his own company and teaches at the Cornish College of the Arts. He has created some 160 works and travels widely to coach small companies like Third Avenue Dance in small towns like Durango. He was in town a few weeks ago to help stage “Sad/Happy.”

“This piece is simply about aging, about human frailty,” Madsen said during a rehearsal break. “All the dancers are supposed to be 90-year-old women. The ideas behind it center on memory and discovering something in the act of remembering.”

The work opens with a compelling image. Under the sounds of rain and then street voices, a group of elderly women huddle beneath a solitary umbrella. Hesitantly, they wander on stage. From that picture of vulnerability, the piece unfolds in both sad and happy directions. The dancers move as if they are stiff, awkward and wary. Bumped and jostled, they encounter different experiences. Out of their pocketbooks they pull photographs, recognize and remember. One old woman suddenly becomes her younger self and dances with the fluidity and grace of a girl.

Stories spring from the simplest of props. Handkerchiefs become metaphors for lost dreams or lost loves. Solos emerge and fade away. A bittersweet ending, not to be given away here, has a touch of Fellini, Italy’s sad/happy film genius.

Wade Madsen gives feedback to dancers during rehearsal for the Third Avenue Dance Co.’s fall production, “Face the Music and Dance.”  Madsen is a Seattle based choreographer who is often regarded as the grandfather of the dance world in Seattle./Photos by Jared Boyd

At rehearsal, the dancers were thoroughly ready for Madsen’s attentive eye. Angular movements slipped easily into youthful exuberance. Sadness melted into joy. Unexpected humor emerged, so did regret, even anger. In short, the piece is grounded in humanism –not a surprise when you learn about Madsen’s rehearsal process.

“At the beginning,” DiSanto said, “Wade asked us to write down 10 things that made us happy and 10 that made us sad. We didn’t have to share these if we didn’t want to. Then he asked us to pick 10 and create choreography to express them.

“He also asked us to bring family pictures – to be shared or not. I brought in a photo of my grandmother. She was a very stern woman, very commanding. She lost everything in the Depression and was very influential in my life.”

Ironically, DiSanto’s photo shows a middle-aged woman laughing, “not the way I remember her at all,” she said. “I love this picture, because I see another side of her.”

As Madsen apparently hoped, the Third Avenue dancers created portraits of individual elderly women.

“The whole piece is character driven,” he said. “The women are not necessarily American. They may be European. They may be composites. It’s up to the dancers.”

A thoughtful narrative dance about aging and a ballroom spoof would be enough for most concerts. But the company will also present short pieces to round out the program. One is a solo about Anne Boleyn, created by DiSanto and danced by Angela Morris.

“I’m fascinated with what people do and think before they die,” DiSanto said. As one of the wives of Henry VIII, Boleyn was sentenced to death by beheading and spent her last days in the Tower of London. “Reading about her inspired me. I originally wanted to do a piece about all six of his wives, and I’ve chosen Anne first. In her final days, she wrote letters and even music. Sometimes she must have been crazy. We’ll have a Renaissance costume on stage, but Anne will dance in a petticoat and corset.”

“Lady in the Tower” will be underscored by a new arrangement of an old madrigal, sung by DiSanto’s sister-in-law, Mouchette Van Helsdenger.

“For the first weekend,” DiSanto said, “we’ll use her recording, but the second weekend Mouchette will be here to sing live on stage.”

The program’s finale will be a tribute to Bob Fosse, a favorite of Third Avenue.

“We do musical theater, too,” DiSanto said. The Fosse finale begins with two solos from the music of “Cabaret”: Lisa Bodwalk to “Maybe This Time” and DiSanto to “Life is a Cabaret.” The finale will include another solo from “Cabaret,” danced by DiSanto, and a number Fosse choreographed to music from the film “Cool Hand Luke.”

“He’s one of my inspirations, a true father of jazz dance – black bowler hats, black stockings and all.”

Third Avenue Dance is a fitting home for new, imaginative, and often narrative pieces. DiSanto and Lisa Bodwalk established The Dance Center and its resident company to provide education and entertainment in the Four Corners region. Their annual concerts highlight what the company does and discovers. In addition to an ever growing repertoire, the company consistently introduces new work by inventive American choreographers. •



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