Bluegrass Inspires Kate Weare Work at ODC

ODC Resident Choreographer Kate Weare weaves a powerful story inspired by a Crooked Jades concert at Café de Nord several years ago.

It was the music that first spoke to choreographer Kate Weare. She’d always liked bluegrass, but it wasn’t until she saw the local, innovative old-time string band the Crooked Jades at Café du Nord that she was inspired to create “World’s on Fire,” the name taken from the foreboding title song on a Jades album: “World’s on fire.
It’s a judgment…”

“They have a rawness, an authenticity,” she says, of the quintet with its Americana roots. “I felt like I was in a revival church space.” When the band played “Moonshiner,” a slow, almost dirge-like version of the traditional song (“I’ve been a moonshiner ever since that I’ve been born…”) she heard in this music the Celtic side of her ancestry. “As Americans we often try to put together a semblance of what our identities are,” she muses. “We struggle with understanding lineage. I recognized this old-world music interacting with the new world. It touched me on a profound level.” She said to her husband, “I could choreograph to this. I feel something.” She made him get up and dance with her, to the surprise of Jades leader Jeff Kazor and the other musicians.

Now, what was created as a quartet (originally called “Bright Land”) for the Kate Weare Company in 2010 has been expanded into an hour-long world premiere for nine dancers by San Francisco’s longtime, acclaimed contemporary dance company, ODC/Dance, where Weare, an Oakland native who is based in New York, is a resident choreographer. It is co-directed by Weare and ODC founder/co-artistic director Brenda Way for ODC company’s home season. The two award-winning choreographers, who have collaborated previously, agree that, metaphorically, they’ve transformed the piece from a short story into a novel—a series of scenes that transcend time and place yet evoke Appalachia in terms of music, choreography, costumes, set (a suggestion of a deconstructed barn by designer Alexander V. Nichols).

At first, Weare wasn’t thinking about the lyrics of the approximately 15 songs she chose from the Jades’ repertoire, a mix of traditional and original. “I’m not a narrative thinker,” she explains. “But a story emerged through the process—these songs are so infused with story.” Still, her collaboration with the Jades did not involve literal interpretations; her approach was toward an under-the-surface emotional dialogue with the music, as she describes it. But along the way she had an uncanny experience. Having heard only the instrumental version of “Pearl Bryan,” she choreographed a duet for a female dancer to pound her head against her male partner’s chest—“basically she levels him to the floor, puts him in his grave”—not thinking, as she created it, of anything literal, just with the idea of violence in mind. As it happens, Pearl Bryan was actually a 22-year-old pregnant woman found decapitated in Kentucky in 1896; it was said that her boyfriend murdered her after a botched abortion attempt. When Kazor saw the duet, he told Weare, “It’s like you’ve made a revenge song for Pearl Bryan”—right down to her (re-attached) head. It is the way Weare works: serving the essence of the music, reacting instinctively, even perhaps unconsciously.

For Way, a longtime bluegrass fan, the idea of collaborating with Weare and the Jades on the piece, developed when Weare’s company was in residence at ODC, was immediately attractive. “I thought this is really a community story and might lend itself to a broader picture than a personal story, with people delineated in different ways,” she explains. “And I thought Kate and I have enough in common, there’s a lot of weightedness and power in Kate’s company and in ours.”

At an early public run-through of “World’s on Fire,” she’d told the audience that in our current divided nation she was drawn to the idea of “framing a complicated and nuanced rendition of the ‘other,’ in this case a rural mountain community.

“For me,” she went on, “this work is a way of focusing on our common humanity. We will recognize ourselves here.”

At a rehearsal at ODC Commons in late January, dancer Tegan Schwab was working on a solo set to the haunting a cappella song “Long Time Traveling”: “Been a long time traveling here below to lay this body down…”). Initially Way had given her a shirt as a prop and told her, “Think of washing clothes, the burden of doing something again and again, day after day.” That was the mood she and Weare were looking for—“the demands of a woman’s work.” Schwab flaps the shirt, throws it on the ground, tosses it aloft, flings herself upon it, mops the floor with it, wrings it, clutches it, drops it, slaps herself with it, stretches it around her waist, kneels on it. “When we found that piece of music,” says Way, “the solo came together in a very evocative way—this heavy sense of carrying on.”

Elsewhere on the studio floor, two male/female couples are rehearsing the identical duet (dancers switch roles at different performances, a challenge they were all eager to undertake) while a pair of men tussle and wrestle. The work is vigorous, playful, anguished, intensely athletic—at times dancers throw one another around, flip one another over, twirl one another like pinwheels. One man drops another on the floor with a frightening thud, like a bale of hay. One drags another by the leg. “It’s too competent!” says Way at one point. “I’m not feeling the weight. You’re too good at it.” And, elsewhere, “You have to be menacing,” and, “Jeremy, be fierce, a junkyard dog.”

In performance, the Jades themselves are onstage throughout, interacting with the dancers, involved with some of the narrative, and interacting with the audience, too, in a kind of call-and-response. Both Weare and Way want an all-encompassing sense of community in the theater. Weare describes the atmosphere that they intend to invoke as mysterious, a place of spiritualism, “sometimes raunchy, sometimes witty and caustic, always with this kind of profound sadness underneath all the music”—the sadness that comes from the fact of hard living, as Kazor has described it.

The following week, at a rehearsal to work on some new sections, four of the Jades were present with banjos, fiddle, guitars (the bass was missing for the day). Lisa Berman, on banjo, sang, “I’m gonna write me
a letter… send it to my baby.” The dancers were buoyant. Listen to the fiddle, Weare cautioned them. It makes a little crying sound. Find that sound within the happy bouncy rhythm: “Even though it’s up-tempo, it’s actually a lament.”


World’s on Fire


March 7 → 10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

700 Howard St.