Pun de Deux
Kathy Dunn Hamrick gives the lowest form of humor a lift in 'The BarreTenders'
Theatre is handily divided into "tragedy" and "comedy" to clue you in that, as an art form, it isn't serious 100% of the time. Dance isn't that lucky; it tends to be divided more along the lines of "classical" and "modern," which might as well be another way of saying "serious" and "even more serious." That's a bad rap for the art form, which can be every bit as playful, even fall-down funny, as its theatrical cousin. That's especially true in Austin, which is blessed with an abundance of choreographers who not only have a great sense of humor but make dances that show them off in delightful and sometimes very funny ways. Just look at Stephen Mills whipping up balletic slapstick in his adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ellen Bartel making dance partners out of life-sized inflatable dolls in the most recent Dance Carousel, Allison Orr channeling Elvis' signature karate kicks and windmill arms in The King and I, Zenobia Taylor paying exuberant tribute to Dolly Parton in Dolly Would. And that's just the tip of the terpsichorean iceberg.
Any list of our city's playful choreographers would be woefully incomplete without Kathy Dunn Hamrick. She has, after all, been responsible for dances based on peculiar phrases from dance reviews and the structure of games. Last year, she challenged herself and the members of her company to pack 30 dances into 60 minutes, a delightful exercise that served up a wealth of clean, clear movement in compact little nuggets. Her latest work draws its inspiration from comic wordplay – from, in fact, what was once dismissed by the literati as the lowest form of humor, the pun. The BarreTenders: Where Every Pun Is Intended, opening this weekend at Cafe Dance, takes that element common to so many ballet studios, the barre, and uses it as the basis for dances that can be read as visual puns.
"For example," the choreographer explains, "in 'Bar Staff,' I've made a visual pun by turning the two parallel barres into two lines of a musical staff. The other three lines of the staff are taped on the wall. The dancers then memorized their own long and intricate series of movements that they 'play' on the barres and wall in sync with a piece of music by the Octopus Project. To give structure to the dance, I then made the dancers play a game of musical chairs at the same time that they're playing the music."
Dunn Hamrick adds that you could find abstract references to terms such as sidebar, bar back, barkeep, bar tab, Barcelona, and Barbie littered through the program. Or, she says, "you can interpret the images, movements, and situations any way you wish. These puns are going to vary widely on a scale from quiet and tender to mildly amusing to – maybe – funny ha-ha."
Dunn Hamrick adds the caveat because she insists that she isn't aiming for gut-busting comedy here. "Personally, I've never set out to make a comedic work or to make people laugh," she says. "It's just how I see things. I use subtle, unexpected movement juxtapositions to startle the viewer into alertness. And sometimes that's funny. Sometimes it's tender or despairing or awkward, but the humorous moments tend to attract the most attention. Regardless of what type of dance we're making, my task is always the same: to create a work that is honest and truthful. The BarreTenders has its clever moments, but for the most part, it's a serious work of art."
If any humor has worked itself into this dance of puns, Dunn Hamrick lays the blame on (or gives the credit to) her company. "My dancers are not only amazing technicians, creative problem-solvers, and exquisite artists; they are also some of the funniest people I know," she says. "Our rehearsals can be quite boisterous. Half the time, they are working so intently I can't even get them to pay attention to me. I'm fortunate to have their total trust and support. They'll humor me by trying anything – and not even roll their eyes."
And that, Dunn Hamrick explains, is just the way she likes it. "I get bored easily, and I like to be entertained, so I surround myself with funny, articulate, quick-witted people. I especially admire those who can use words to their advantage, to create change or, you know, to make me laugh. I like spontaneous observations that erupt unexpectedly and without caution. How do people do that? When my two sisters and I start e-mailing back and forth, I feel like a total loser because I can't possibly compete with their fast, funny barbs. Oooh. Barbs. I didn't use that in The BarreTenders. I still have one more week ..."
The BarreTenders: Where Every Pun Is Intended runs Feb. 9-23, Saturday, 5 & 7:30pm; Sunday, 1:30pm, at Cafe Dance, 3307-B Hancock. For more information, call 934-1082 or visit www.kdhdance.com.