Kansas University's New Directions Series took off with some really fun stuff on Friday night. Seriously.
The quartet of acts, which included polkas from the fringe, electric chamber music, amplified tap dancing and a hilarious one-man performance about why men die sooner, was a kind of new-wave variety show. "The Best of Serious Fun from Lincoln Center" played to about 450 people in Liberty Hall.
Modern choreographer Charles Moulton opened the show by tap dancing on a tabletop. This wasn't ordinary tap: the sounds of his shoes were amplified and altered electronically, and Moulton snapped a book open and shut to punctuate the performance.
His piece, "Tapnology Solo," was abrasive and playful, outright funny in places and just this side of irritating. Fred Astaire sang on a portable tape player; Moulton became a jumble of crashes, bangs and thumb piano-like twangs as he moved across and around the starkly lighted stage.
HE WAS WIRED so that his body movements, as well as the taps on his shoes, made all sorts of sounds. It was a marvel of technology; puzzling over how the electronic gadgetry worked sometimes distracted from the dance itself.
Moulton also used a red whistle and straw boater hat along with his book. He shouted and sang, too, lighted by a naked white bulb: "Why don't you love me? I'm not ugly" brought laughs. His dance certainly wasn't ugly, although it had an urban grittiness. It was intense and high-powered even more so at the end when Moulton jumped into a square of bright white lightbulbs strung along the floor, tap dancing and thumping faster and faster until the end of the work.
Guy Klucevsek was amazing with his accordion. Surely this instrument, long a favorite of terrible street musicians in Paris and the butt of endless polka jokes, is not deserving of its reputation. If people heard John Zorn's uproarious "Roadrunner," which gives "loony tunes" new meaning, the accordion would command much more respect.
KLUCEVSEK'S OWN "Perusal," described as variations on Andean pan pipes, was a beautiful song that was swirling with dance then sad. Bobby Previte's "The Nova Scotia Polka," one of 31 pieces Klucevsek commissioned from people who'd never written one, was a gorgeous piece of music but it certainly didn't sound like a polka. Fred Frith's "Disinformation Polka," from the same batch, was a funny work about taking a stab at writing a polka. It would get rolling and stop, then start all over again.
The other musical component of the show was by composer Scott Johnson, who opened his set with an excerpt from "John Somebody" for tape and guitar. As variations of a woman's voice saying "Remember that guy, John Somebody, he was, sort of a . . . " looped around and distorted and changed, jazz and rock and "new age" music met and melded together. It was followed by "Electric Quartet" for keyboards, cello, violin and guitar, plus two pieces from the "Patty Hearst" film soundtrack.
THE MUSICIANS the composer, Phillip Bush on keyboards, violinist Mary Rowell and cellist Erik Friedlander were a fine ensemble, nearly as electric as the music. They are all quite expressive performers, in tune with the dynamics of the composer's liquid electronics.
Johnson's compositions are chamber music for the 21st century. The quartet arrangements mixed jazz, art rock and traditional chamber qualities into something altogether new and wonderful.
Tom Cayler's hilarious performance of "Men Die Sooner" a compressed version of a 55-minute collaborative piece closed the show, and it couldn't be beat as sheer entertainment. Using voice and movement, Cayler sets up to tell us why men die sooner, pulling out a variety of nonsensical pie charts and graphs. His character, who finally admits that "all men are jerks," grows increasingly obnoxious. He becomes this jerk he describes; as he grows hot he strips down, revealing that he's such a nerd he has a plastic pocket protector on his pocketless undershirt. (To the delight of the audience, Cayler also had Jayhawk boxer shorts, bought here just the day before.)
As Cayler's character gets more frenetic, he moves faster and faster, makes less and less sense, and finally dies of a heart attack.
The work was created by Cayler, dancer Clarice Marshall, and Kay Cummings, with scores by Cummings and Daniel Ziegler.
If nothing else, "The Best of Serious Fun" shows that new stuff doesn't have to be taken so seriously to be considered good.
By Carolyn McMaster J-W Arts Editor