Curran's `Art Song' snaps with pop appeal

Sean Curran has made dances about the joys of love and dances about the burden of love. With his newest work, an epic titled "Art Song Dance," he's attempting to cover both territories at once.

"I always imagined I would meet a guy, and we would be married for life," Curran said during a telephone interview from Detroit, where he was setting new choreography on a group of students. "Of course, it didn't work out that way. I haven't been in a relationship for 12 years. My primary relationship has been with my dance company."

Seen last summer at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, "Art Song Dance" was well received by audience members who couldn't help getting caught up in the work's honest emotions and powerful theatricality. "Crossover" composer Ricky Ian Gordon provided the sophisticated score, a setting of poems and text by James Agee, Langston Hughes, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker. The music is catchy, not something one finds regularly on a typical modern dance program, but "Art Song Dance" is a definite departure for Curran, who made it in hopes that he might get more work on Broadway.

"I wanted to prove that I could put my own eccentric twist on it," he said. "It's a limited vocabulary for me, very stripped down in terms of the movement and simpler than my previous work."

Fortunately for those who missed it at Jacob's Pillow, "Art Song Dance" has its Boston premiere tomorrow night at the Tsai Performance Center, where the Bank of America Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts present Sean Curran Company through Sunday afternoon.

The program includes another large ensemble work, the 2002 "Sonata (We Are What We Were)," as well as a new solo to music by Meredith Monk and "Companion Dances," a duet choreographed and performed by Curran and longtime company member Heather Waldon-Arnold.

Curran said that while his "Sonata" reflects a community where everyone is equal, almost archetypal, "Art Song Dance" is more like a series of little portraits.

"When I chose the particular pieces, there was a conscious casting of each member of the company," said Curran. "Because everything changes from song to song, I wanted to have the feeling of a band of players, a group of strolling troubadours, something like that."

At first the dancers were skeptical, and Curran said he had to be as much a director as a choreographer.

"The dancers were cringing. They asked, 'Do you really want me to look in the audience and smile? Do I really have to act all sexy?' The funny thing is, once the women put on their dresses and shoes and put their hair up, and the guys did their thing, all of a sudden I had to tone it down.

"At the first showing in New York, I thought, 'Where is my company?' They had turned into Tony Award-winning Broadway stars!" said Curran with a laugh. "I had to say, 'A little less would be more."'

Also on the program is an unusual solo Curran performs to Meredith Monk's "St. Petersburg Waltz."

"It was inspired by the idea of a landscape, specifically that of her Russian-Jewish-Polish grandparents," said Curran. "So I thought I would channel her grandfather, since I think I was Eastern European in a former life. I grew my beard and borrowed a costume from New York City Opera to make me look like a man from 150 years ago in St. Petersburg. I thought about that volatile time in Russia, with Nazi Germany right around the corner, so there's some goose-stepping and a Hitler salute, and even an old gesture phrase from Arnie Zane."
- Theodore Bale, Boston Herald, 21 January 2005