“When shall we learn what should be clear as day,/We cannot choose what we are free to love?” W.H. Auden’s “Canzone” is not one of the poems that figure in singer-performer Tom Bogdan’s beautiful Tell Me the Truth About Love, but that thought infuses the evening. Some of the Auden verses that Paul Boesing has set to music are light. In rambles through London’s gay world, Auden catalogs delights with the suave mischief of Cole Porter or Noel Coward. But other poems—written during Auden’s long affair with the much younger Chester Kallman—are profoundly tender, angry, or tinged with intimations of the death of love. Bogdan, who appears regularly with Meredith Monk, is more than a fine tenor. He shapes a song with body, soul, and subtle intellect.
Tell Me the Truth is a recital shaped with rare sensitivity into a theater piece. True, Bogdan sings 20 songs, accompanied by Harry Huff at the piano, but he does so in front of an immense and gorgeous gauzy patchwork curtain of silk squares, designed by Jim Hodges. In the beginning Bogdan pops, like a song-and-dance man, through a little standing curtain of pleated newspapers. And he’s not alone. Auden’s alter ego (Peter Schmitz—wonderful at grumpy omniscience) delivers a few of the songs in rhythmed speech, and gleefully reads a letter of Auden’s telling of his first meeting with Kallman; he’s the fitful presence looking over the poet’s shoulder.
In one of the most delicious numbers, Bogdan sings “Jam Tart” (a jam tart being only one of many things Auden is willing to be now that Kallman has cast a spell on him), while Paul Matteson, as Kallman, sweetly manipulates him as if he were a big puppet. Under Terry Creach’s skillful direction, Olase Freeman and Bradley Lundberg become gay young men who embrace in the background; they also sweep up rose petals, engage in soft push-and-pull athletics (trademark Creach choreography) with Schmitz and Matteson, and tumble the love-drunk Bogdan around.
Bogdan has the gift of simplicity, but he knows just when to give a note a dying fall, drop into speech, make his voice tremble wickedly on a “Never!” He masters and helps unify the varying styles of Boesing’s splendid songs—from numbers that bring to mind a ’20s revue and sweet tunes you’d find in an old piano bench to melodies that loop over needling Ivesian dissonances. The gay context is important (Auden moved to America to live with Kallman at a time when homosexuality in England was punishable by law), but the subject is universal. “I love you,” sings Bogdan/Auden, “until the ocean is folded and hung out to dry.” Oh, yes.
The Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series gives audiences (not the usual dance crowd) a glimpse into new performance works and lets them hear creators expound on whatever they feel is important. You could, I suppose, call the recent evenings with choreographer Donald Byrd “Byrd Lite,” but we did get to see good-sized chunks of his completed In a Different Light: Duke Ellington, which premieres at the Joyce February 29, and hear Byrd talk, before and between sections, with Gus Solomons jr. The informality is pleasant. The dancers perform in makeshift costumes but with lighting effects. Byrd feels free to ask Stephanie Guiland and Daniel Cardoso to start a duet over again. Right after we’ve been admiring the terrific orchestration of Ellington for a sexy part Byrd calls “The Shack,” the orchestrator, Steven Bernstein, scrambles up out of the audience to talk about his process, and how he added some “environment from my generation” to Ellington’s golden jazz.
Byrd, unlike many contemporary choreographers, has a way with steps. That is, he often makes his dancers’ feet work hard and intricately, rather than mainly having them carry a mobile torso and arms. The first section he shows has the look of ballet on edge, the usual classical flow challenged by pauses that tug at Ellington’s 3/4 rhythms. Guiland and Alexandra Damiani wear long, fluffy practice tutus and hang romantically on Thaddeus Davis; they also hop and swirl and bat the air. Damiani spins off the ground a startling number of times as she launches herself into Davis’s arms.
The choreographer bridles a bit when Solomons uses the word “reference” (not inappropriate since Byrd set his popular Harlem Nutcracker to Ellington’s version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, and is currently laboring on a Sleeping Beauty). But, no, says Byrd, he’s not trying, as a postmodernist, to reference anything; he grew up not knowing that styles of dance were supposed to be different, or that a hierarchy existed. Anyway, the ’70s, when he came into dance, were less about movement invention than about synthesis.
Solomons points out that Byrd is not a “jazz choreographer,” and Ellington, they agree, transcends jazz style. However, the choreographer goes for the get-down element rather than the classical in “The Shack,” a display of what he calls “public sex.” Led by seductive Olivia Bowman, the powerful dancers (including Jennifer Perry, Devin Pullins, and Jamal Story) stroke their bodies in unison, eye us, and writhe into those gestures that signal sexual readiness in television, movies, and nightclubs. At the end, there’s a tasteful but explicit orgy. When Byrd prods us to say whether we were shocked (not his intention), one man finally says he had to pick his jaw up off the floor before he could talk.
“Raunch,” Byrd says, “is a great vitality inducer.” And, as the dancers swing into the lively, vigorous duets of “In a Different Light,” no one’s yawning or consulting watches.
There’s something engaging about two women articulating the intricacies of Bach while sitting, crouching, and scootching about the floor. Fierce Attachment, performed by Meredith Mandel and Julie Martignetti, is the smartest of eight dances on a program by Erica Murkofsky’s Imago Dance Theater. It’s also engaging to watch Martignetti doggedly pull all the newspaper stuffing out of a male dummy she’s been trying to to romance in All the Seams, and Carl Forsman explain his growing up as a dance-intrigued nondancer who finally gets to dance in Recital.
Murkofsky creates some surreal visions: Martignetti and Amanda Exley Lower dancing wanly with their own little-girl photos projected onto their white dresses (Where Did You Go?); Lower bare-backed, sitting amid an immense fluff of bridal net, moving her arms like wings (The Vow); women drawn to walk in a trough of dirt (Resting Place). These dances are intriguing, although none of them is fully developed—whereas a murky trio and a solo for Mandel seem to boil about in search of a direction.