LehrerDance, on loan from Buffalo, New York last weekend for JCC of Houston’s 30th annual Dance Month celebration, didn’t have me at “hello.” But it only took until the “how are ya?” for choreographer Jon Lehrer’s musical and intuitive repertory and his plucky cast to ensnare me.
When a company is more than 1200 miles from home in an unfamiliar city for only two performances, it can feel like there’s only one chance to get it right. The dancers were perhaps shaking off some jitters in the opening moments of Iambus but the long and short was they seemed a bit stiff in a rendering of Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma’s “Grace.” They hit their stride with the energetic bounce of McFerrin’s “Kalimba Suite” but at the start of the company’s second offering, Loose Canon, I found myself uncertain about where my encounter with LehrerDance was headed.
Wearing pajamas, the five dancers begin in repose , tossing and turning to the strains of nuptial warhorse, Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Even when those half notes are announced through Wynton Marsalis’s horn they seem a bit timeworn. David Parson’s Sleep Study came to mind. It is a classic crowd-pleaser but pretty familiar territory for comedic dancing. I didn’t yet know choreographer Jon Lehrer well enough to be sure he had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek so, just as I was beginning to think this wasn’t going to end well, Lehrer pushed the rewind button (literally). Suddenly the trajectory of Loose Canon shifts. Clearly of its own mind and responding to some vibrato itch, Jennifer Huffman’s hand wriggles away from her and the men manage to pull off a not-so-petite cygnet parody. Mass head-bobbling breaks out among the cast, and gaping mouths emulate the canon’s lingering finale. Funny and facetious, Lehrer’s mad, musical interpretation freshened up the score and put the audience (myself included) right in the palm of his hand to be carried along for the ride.
The dancers sport a no-fuss, body-hugging wardrobe, provided by company costume designer Cindy Darling and are bathed in glowing pools by lighting designer Kam Hobbs. Hobbs’ work was a solid throughline in an evening of mixed repertory, his use of vivid color and dynamic changes most evident in Fused by 7.
The performers are a septet with distinctive instrumentation. Like a good jazz composer, Lehrer knows how to flaunt each of his dancer’s unique qualities. Rehearsal director and a founding member of the young company, Marideth Wanat is versatile and can deliquesce into harmonies. However, with a spunk that sets her apart, she captivates when working alone, as in her emotive solo The Way Within. Chosen recently as one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch,” Wanat is the saxophone. Theodore Krzykowski trumpets the high notes, his blasts of fluid floor work and gymnastic dexterity electrified the performance. Jennifer Huffman, bringing skillful support and personality to the troupe, is the trombone. Immanuel Naylor, Joseph Roth, Kristen Stein, and Charity Newton complete the group’s rhythm section, each player is individual and vital in Lehrer’s hands, right down to the improvisational curtain call.
Refreshingly unforeseen is the renouncement of all things cynical on Lehrer’s program. From the idyllic ménage presented in Trois, to the energetic and playful, Ritual Dynamic, the audience is invited to enjoy pure yet perceptive entertainment. I’ve read that a jazz composer’s role is to build a musical framework that suggests or implies more than it sets down. Beneath Lehrer’s contemporary jazz soundtrack is a sophisticated fusion of classic movement vocabularies and all-things-considered choreography. Those who notice only the dazzling acrobatic partnering by the amorphically clad Huffman and Krzykowski are missing something in the magical and very human Morphic Slip.
Though I analogize LehrerDance to a musical jazz ensemble, and though Jon Lehrer has roots in Giordano’s Jazz Dance Chicago, the company resists typecasting as a modern or jazz dance ensemble. If there is something you can expect from this work, it is that it is going to go somewhere unexpected. This delightful trend is what brought the JCC audience to its feet. “Y’all come back now.” LehrerDance is welcome any time on Houston turf.
JCC’s Dance Month continues through February 20. See http://www.jcchouston.org for details on upcoming events.
Reprinted from Dance Source Houston