Far Away Places

I WAS THREE years old when my father shipped out to Japan during World War II. The smoky radio voice of pop singer Jo Stafford crooning, "Those far away places with the strange-sounding names are calling, calling me" is forever linked in my memory to the image of Dad off fighting in some exotic land while the rest of us waited.

In her movement-theater work Palace of Dreams...21st Century Vaudeville, Minneapolis choreographer Shawn McConneloug evokes a similar sense of the far away and the strange, and the slippery hold of memory. The project began two years ago as part of a celebration honoring the Orpheum Theater in St. Paul, a former vaudeville and movie house then slated for demise.

"I walked into the theater--dark, dilapidated, the stage covered in pigeon shit--and immediately felt the ghosts of all the normal people who had sat in those seats," says McConneloug, age 45, who often begins a project by finding something that scares her. "I kept picturing people's lives intersecting--falling in love, falling out of love--there was such a visceral sense of life."

Over the next several months, McConneloug, a movie junkie who has worked extensively with film, immersed herself in vaudeville lore and old war movies (including army training films such as "Winning Your Wings" starring Ronald Reagan). She also got hooked on the over-the-top exotica of island films like Pagan Love Song. McConneloug focused on the period ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s, when, as she puts it, "Vaudeville was going down, and movies were coming up. Those old theaters presented entertainment as escape: You could go sit somewhere and be someone else for a while."

Working with composer/arranger Drew Gordon and an eccentric assortment of dancers, actors, singers, and circus-trained performers, McConneloug meshed the style and absurdity of vaudeville with the excesses of war-decade films. She began by having the performers imitate bits from documentaries and vintage films. "My motto is imitate, then aberrate," she quips. She also found the perfect venue for her evening-length production--the newly renovated Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights. Originally built as a movie house in 1926 to serve the employees of Gluek's brewery, it was bought and restored by Dave Holmgren and Tom Letness in 1998. "I could just see all the memories contained in that historic space colliding."

And collide they do, in a series of acts that reference everything from Busby Berkeley to minstrel shows. There are classic film clips and tap dancing from A to Z, including a hob-nailed boot number to "The Army Air Corps Song" that disintegrates into dispirited schlepping. A soft-shoe rendition of "Singing in the Rain" finds the performers hamboning with umbrellas that morph into snappily maneuvered rifles. Then there are the miniature ukuleles--just barely covering the breasts of a sullen chanteuse who intones, "If you like a ukulele lady, ukulele lady like you." Or a Verdi-style take on the beach scene in From Here to Eternity where a passionate couple sings out their operatic orgasms, blowing the high notes directly into one another's mouths.

For all its skewing of styles and genres, Palace of Dreams is not, McConneloug insists, a commentary on war or nostalgia. She views it rather as a reality statement on the way we all need fantasies to survive (with memory acting as the ultimate fantasy). In one scene, a woman sings resolutely off-key, droning, "We live and reign or go down in flames, boys, nothing can stop the Army Air Corps." For McConneloug, whose father was a lieutenant colonel in the corps, it's a homage to her mother and others who waited out the war. "How did she live through it?" wonders McConneloug. " If it were me, I'd have been drinking heavily--but she just toughed it out."

 
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