February '05


Space and touch
By David Ollington

Charles R. Rogers, the artistic director of the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College, first viewed the work of New York choreographer Doug Varone at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. He sought out the artist, enthralled by a fresh approach to choreography and an ensemble of accomplished performers. Rogers commissioned a work from Varone, which had its Kansas City area premiere Feb. 5 at Yardley Hall.

The commissioned work opened the concert. “Castles” resounded with innovation and choreographic integrity. To the music of Prokofiev, the ensemble of nine dancers interwove with kinesthetic ease. Varone and dancers created hypnotic interactions. Sometimes the dancers touched then immediately pulled away. Other times the touch would lead to a lift or another tactile encounter. A risky duet between two men explored physical contact in variegated levels of intensity, both building to and avoiding obvious erotic movement.


In the larger group sections, Varone built theatrical tension with his use of the space, often having the performers use only a small segment of the stage — crowded — moving between and through the group with such grand movement the viewer is left dying for a larger sweep into the fullness of Yardley Hall’s performing area. Varone’s spatial gavotte along with his mysterious use of touch (that often seemed like chance encounters) made “Castles” an expression of an indecisive sexuality.

The second dance, “Deconstructing English,” included much of the same innovative use of space and unpredictable touch between dancers, but failed to match the vibrancy of “Castles.” Much of the choreography seemed similar to the opening number, offering little contrast. In white, cold light, the dancers moved about to a deconstructed remix of Bach’s English Suites.

In a pre-show talk, the 48-year-old Varone announced that because of his upcoming hip replacement surgery, the Feb. 5 show would be his final dance performance. The Johnson County audience witnessed, in Varone’s dance “As Natural As Breathing,” the last dance onstage of the eponymous Doug Varone.

“As Natural As Breathing” hearkens back to the days of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. To 1960’s organ music, the dancers gyrated in luridly colored costumes. The final dance of the evening, it offered some notable chuckles. For example, Varone came out, lay on the stage and another dancer entered and draped herself over him. She immediately exited, and another dancer entered, so Varone shuffled on his back closer to her — clearly hoping for another taste of physical contact.

Varone’s style of dance emphasizes loose, thrown movement. The dancers work with remarkable aplomb. But “As Natural As Breathing” seemed to be a celebration of another era of dance. The 1960’s dancers often stayed contained with a subtle hip wiggle or a snap of the wrist. The most popular dance of the decade, the twist, remains in one place and focuses the eye on the pelvis. Bob Fosse’s genius captured this era with contained, isolated motion. Varone could serve “As Natural As Breathing” more palatably by incorporating more contrasting, historically accurate choreography to his calligraphic style.

The Carlsen Center’s next dance event will be River North Chicago March 4 and 5. Visit or call 913-469-4445.

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Gorilla in our midst

Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Company moved a few years ago from their home in Martin City to the former Carousel Park space in the Metcalf South Shopping Center. The group boasts an established and longtime place in the area’s entertainment community and plans extensive renovation to their new, spacious home.

The formula of most of their creations includes a two-act story followed by a musical vaudeville revue. Music plays an integral role in these productions. The word “melodrama” actually means “drama with music.” A solo pianist pounds out melody after melody as the audience enters. Characters in the story have musical motifs, often followed by a required audience response, such as “boo!” for the villain and “yay!” for the hero.

Currently, Martin City Melodrama presents Kansas City Kong or the Gorilla of My Dreams and TV Tomfoolery! The melodrama lambastes local issues with characters such as Mayor Kay Barnes (Katie Flynn), the villain Byron S. Tait II who prefers to be called “Bi State Two” (David J. Reyes), and a reporter named Kacee Starr (Robin Baldridge). The story commences with a liaison between a Kansas City organization and a fictional Branson attraction, the Devil’s Island Resort and Animal Park. A giant ape, Kong (Joshua Chipchase) has been discovered at the park and the greedy forces of the city hope to capture him to lure people to Union Station. Add to the pot the hero John Q. P. Blick (Jeff Hershberger) and the heroin Ann Derrell (Jessical Whitfield).

The appropriate style of acting for melodrama entails broad, larger-than-life work with the actors facing front for every line. Director Jeanne Beechwood carefully sculpts her productions, often more choreographed than directed. Kong includes delightful moments, and makes for an accessible evening of entertainment. The declamatory nature of the work is essential to the genre but the loud, regular delivery of each actor’s lines lacks hills and valleys. The actors have the same attitude when discussing travel arrangements as they do when Kong appears to be threatening the city. The actors could execute the melodramatic style and still manage to weave builds and climaxes into the piece.

Katie Flynn as Barnes uses the theatrical conventions with expertise, and succeeds at showing us a character with dimension while still getting laughs and facing front on every line. Some of the most effective moments are when Joshua Christopher makes startling entrances as the giant gorilla.

We first meet Baldridge as Kacee Starr and she introduces herself as a country singer/reporter, singing through her first speech. This is a charming device that unfortunately happens only once in the evening. She speaks rather than sings for the rest of Kong.

The vaudeville, “TV Tomfoolery!” celebrates the music of television, including a rap song about remotes, a medley of commercial jingles, and various stagings of TV show themes.

The genius of Jon Copeland, musical director and pianist, serves as glue that holds the event together. He plays mood music for most of the melodrama, occasionally stepping onstage to assume a role. His talented hands play during every intermission. For the revue, he comes onstage as the NBC Peacock and plays a toy xylophone, at first simply and slow, then fast with stunning dexterity. He dons a Spiderman outfit and sings the Spiderman theme while dancing and gesturing with ease. Copeland’s Spiderman dance included the most fetching choreography of the vaudeville.

Kansas City Kong or the Gorilla of My Dreams runs through March 31 at Martin City Melodrama and Vaudeville Company, Metcalf South, 95th and Metcalf in Overland Park. Call 913-642-7576 or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at or



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