Rhythm Nation

A foot up on the competition: Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum bring narrative ingenuity and a kitchen-sink production aesthetic to their unique brand of percussive dance

IT'S AN ODD time to be a percussive dancer. Hip-hop tappers, virile Irish high-steppers, blokes who bang on cans--these days just about anyone who can sustain a steady meter seems to have financial backing, a deal with Coca-Cola, and a video giveaway on a PBS fund drive. Local beatmaster Joe Chvala is a bit circumspect about the prepackaged dance trend, seeing as his 7-year-old Flying Foot Forum has always been more than a shuffle-step ahead of the curve.

"Obviously we're doing something different from Riverdance or Stomp or Tap Dogs," says the Minneapolis-based choreographer. It'll be a dry day in Ireland before you see Michael Flatley pair up with the industrial-strength Minneapolis sound outfit Savage Aural Hotbed, as Chvala does regularly, nor should one wait for the merry Stomp-ers to depict and deconstruct a quasi-fascist power struggle as Chvala has. "I started long before I heard of those groups. I want to find all the ways to use percussive dance, but my work's not about going out to do a cool show with lots of percussion. I'm laying on the content and the storytelling with a different purpose in mind."

Indeed, beyond any integrity contest, what makes the Foot Forum such a potent force on stage is Chvala's charmingly cluttered imagination, home to a bounty of weird and dark Nordic myths, nonsense stories, medieval mind trips, and the occasional happy-shiny sentiment. In this artist's world, anything goes with rhythm and movement.

Music is the natural starting point for Chvala's work, and his newest endeavor, Trä (translated as "wood"), boasts a particularly infectious score. Set to poetry from the Finnish Kantelatar and the tunes of Hedningarna (the Heathens), a Swedish folk-roots group, Trä is an epic journey on the order of a Scandinavian Canterbury Tales.

This weekend the Foot Forum will premiere three sections at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, and Chvala, who prefers to stretch his creative process over two or three years' time, seems deeply engaged in the philosophical phase of the endeavor. "This piece is about people's psyches, people's relations with each other, their relationship with the aging process, the microcosmic world," he says, with the reflexive ease of one who is caught in the middle of a torrential brainstorm--and doesn't mind sounding a bit wet behind the ears as a result. According to Chvala, this latest effort "is about human beings in their natural state as human animals." One section, "Räven," for example, tells the folk story of a seductive woman with a fox's tail who leaves a disturbing impression on all who cross her path.

Chvala's last grand-scale effort, Mjøllnir, was two hours of primal underworld adventure; he jokingly describes the ambitious show as having "the production values of Broadway on a starving artist's budget." And, in fact, the choreographer still stitches all the Foot Forum costumes, designs sets, and hits the road for several weeks a year to make his rent.

So maybe it's not a Tap Dog's life, but when the Lord of the Dance is deposed and beheaded, Chvala will still be enjoying his own uniquely literary brand of toe-tapping freedom.

Joe Chvala and the Flying Foot Forum perform Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at the College of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 690-6700.

 
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