Ballad: The Unknown Road Still Marching —1997

Ballad: The Unknown Road Still Marching is Act Three of choreographer Stephen Pelton’s ambitious dance/theater piece, America Songbook. It was premiered at Theater Artaud in San Francisco, and beautifully reviewed in the San Francisco Examiner.


LOCAL DANCE companies wavering in their decision to deploy live musicians during their performances should hasten over to Theater Artaud. If music matters in your dances, tape just won’t do (and if music doesn’t matter that much, then you may need help).

The proof of that cranky assertion is the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater’s “America Songbook,” premiered Wednesday evening as the opening attraction of Artaud’s fall season. Performances run through Sunday, and, as George Balanchine once observed, if you don’t like the dance, close your eyes and listen to the music. It’s a rouser; with pianist Steve Basili, the Rova Saxophone Quartet and another instrumental quartet performing an original Robert Maggio score, how could it not be? But, then, Pelton’s first major project in a couple of years doesn’t merely use music as accompaniment. It is about nothing less than music, about the manner in which it reflects our changing cultural imperatives. All this, you think, in a little over an hour? What hubris!

Pelton’s route, however, is that of the personal epic; “America Songbook” is an impressionist triptych that aims not for holy sociological writ, but for an elliptical essay on African American music from the Civil War through the time of the Great Depression, but not necessarily in that order. And by ending with the relatively distant period of the war between the states, he asks whether we were really better off in our innocence.

Dance values fortunately prevail in “America Songbook,” and formal considerations loom high. The piece maintains a sweep and generates an energy that sees it through to the end, despite a couple of fuzzy moments. The eight dancers (some borrowed) that Pelton assembled for the work rarely get a chance to rest.

What keeps “America Songbook” simmering is the choreographer’s reliance on recurring symbolic figures and key steps constantly recontextualized; and the almost organic quality grows on you as the work proceeds.
In Part One, “The Show in Town,” set in 1909, a black man (Kevin Ware, on loan from ODC / San Francisco) and a white man (Private Freeman from the same company) back into view with a histrionic flair; their tails and the proscenium designed by Matthew Antaky to simulate a marquee suggest a theatrical tradition that is about to split into two strains.

Both vaudevillians deliver roughly the same movements, the high-stepping strut we associate with the cakewalk. Yet, when the dancers acquire canes, a unison soft shoe routine (performed barefoot) metamorphoses into a duel as the pair brandish their batons. The choreography feels weighty, drawn toward the earth; shoulders slump and bodies contort. Basili plays Scott Joplin piano rags at stage left.

The next tableau reveals a wall with five doorways; the dancers are rigidly posed (was Matthew Brady an influence?), a cross-section of a small town. In a sweet pink dress, Heather Tiesort waltzes (and it is the most melancholy waltz you have ever seen) with her soldier boyfriend (David Balsley). Then, to “A Real Slow Drag,” a tall woman (Gretchen Walker) eases into a weary striptease. And a drunk patron fires a shot, dimming the lights and a few dreams, too.

Part Two ( “Workaday Blues” ) jolts the ear, as the Rova Saxophone Quartet blows the blues behind a scrim, and the acrid sonority rivets the attention. The urban setting compels a different rhythm. It is faster, more ritualistic and joyless. Tiesort and Balsley reappear but in a grimmer context than previously.
Unisons that earlier represented society at its most cohesive now feel alienated and competitive. Pelton’s great theatrical coup here is a grotesque conga routine, with the performers on all fours, heads lined up against butts.

Part Three ( “The Unknown Road Still Marching” ) begins with a wistful touch. Upstage, a sheet drops and behind it, Ellarae Miner, dressed in Civil War era garb, sits at a spinet, accompanying herself in a Whitman text about a dying soldier. An instrumental quartet takes up Maggio’s endearingly folksy score.
Battle-scarred soldiers creep in and there’s much rolling around the floor, before the vaudevillians return and head into the distance. The ending feels too pat and abbreviated, like the closing shot of a 1930s celluloid paean to brotherhood.
And one feels, too, that Pelton has arbitrarily abandoned his odyssey after the period of urbanization. What happened to this country’s music after that is of comparable, if not more interest.

Still, coming from a choreographer who has never before set a work on this ambitious scale, “America Songbook” looks like an impressive new beginning. And that live music will get you through the dry patches.

Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner