Julia Rhoads‘ latest evening-length work bucks trends by embracing them. Before and after Punk Yankees — and during a brief intermission packed with enough stimuli to make me regret needing to use the restroom — a live feed of at-replies to Lucky Plush’s Twitter handle were met with instantaneous responses from the account as well as those of the piece’s eight performers. The transition from pre-show music by Girl Talk into a score only slightly less mashed-up similarly showed no fear toward new forms and boundary-testing of copyright law. What sticks about Yankees is how it turns a spotlight on aging notions about choreographic originality gone translucent from living in shadow.
A surprising and very funny opening scene gives way to a deluge of information recognizable to avid dancegoers (less-so to casual or novice audiences — more on that in a bit). Samplings of Ohad Naharin, Bob Fosse and Trisha Brown are fed to Lucky Plush’s ravenous grinder and made into sausages of new and old, classical and modern, obscure and iconic. Rhoads’ own repertoire is a primary ingredient throughout, satisfying to longtime followers of her company. For those that aren’t, it probably works just as well as a visual bonding agent.
The mood stays light throughout Punk Yankees but, huddled around each other murmuring and humming, the dancers suggest a séance, conjuring the spirits of dancemaking past. All the longer dance sections take on the quality of a primordial soup; although every movement has a distinct source, the broader statement is that, on a basic level, it’s all just a bunch of steps — it’s the individuals that give them life that should be treated as sacred. Surely, an uptight purist will never stand for the sunburst from Apollo being bookended by the macarena and a phrase from “Thriller,” but I found it much less questionable than, say, Tony Powell hollowly aping Forsythe or Ma Cong hawking his Duato knockoffs like fake Fendi handbags on Canal Street (somebody stop them, please).
Punk Yankees‘ referential layering is unabashedly optimized for dance-savvy audiences. And I found that refreshing — there’s a pride in how deeply Lucky Plush has dived into the hall of mirrors that is the last fifty-odd years of choreography. Desks with laptops come in and out of view along both sides of the stage, the company’s eight faces on webcam projected onto the upstage scrim in a Brady Bunch/Hollywood Squares grid. The computer screen is treated both as reflector and long-awaited steady stream of fuel for their appropriative jones; when Lia Bonfilio finds a choice YouTube link, Rhoads is instantly over her shoulder like a junkie saying, “Ooh, can you send me that? Send me that link.” Dancers not sucked into duets and trios of borrowed material pace restlessly in wait for their next fix.
Text in general, which is included in nearly every scene, is occasionally too obvious but often pleasingly open-ended. Lighting Designer and Technical Director Kevin Rechner walks nonchalantly onstage at the close of the first act, announcing “Screen coming in!” in a way that makes it as figurative as literal. Other times it’s succinct in framing what’s happening vocabularily: Rhoads and Kim Larimore Goldman clue us in to how a phrase was developed, similar to a game of telephone, making it logical and rewarding to watch the following section for subtle transpositions.
The best result of a show like this is the work it does in coaxing acknowledgment of influences out of the closet. Dance has a lot of catching up to do in this regard — the myth of the choreographer-as-singular-generative-force sits on a carpet of eggshells and conspires to keep the field woefully slow to adapt. Punk Yankees is a work of dance theater but, more importantly, it’s an invitation to a conversation.
Lucky Plush Productions’ Punk Yankees continues through October 31 at the Dance Center of Columbia College.