Searchers

Maverick Shawn McConneloug looks west for her latest dance and pony show

Yodeling is tricky business. You have to determine where the voice breaks in order to create a harmonious trill. If the yodel slides around unchecked, the result is something like the cry of a lovesick goose. Early last summer, Shawn McConneloug and Her Orchestra spent many an hour in the chapel studio of the Center for Performing Arts in south Minneapolis trying to master this unique call of the Wild West. A visitor then would have found the posse listening intently to a compact disc--How to Yodel the Cowboy Way--and then trying it out: "Oh de lo tee, oh lo, oh lo, oh de lay oh!"

"Practice moving a muscle that is between your chest and head voice," instructs McConneloug, as her company members place their hands gently on one another's throats to feel the unfamiliar reverberation around the vocal chords. They're struggling, yet every once in a while someone finds the break: "Yodel yoda oday odel delay!"

At McConneloug's instigation, these dancers, singers, and actors are fiercely intent on becoming "cowboygirls." And by now they've spent nearly a year living the dream of life on the wide-open spaces as preparation for McConneloug's dance-theater work, Stand on Your Man, premiering this weekend at Loring Playhouse. Aside from yodeling, Arwen Wilder, Kristin Van Loon, Susan Scalf, Heather Spear, Audra Tracy, Peter Rousseau, Shaun True, and Jonathan Niel have been twirling lariats (after a few lessons from trick-rope artist Pop Wagner), mastering "Red River Valley" on harmonica, channeling their inner horses, and generally learning how to make their spurs "jingle, jangle, jingle," just like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and John Wayne once did. And naturally they are dancing.

"I was influenced by Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," admits McConneloug, referring to some of her larger-than-life production numbers. Dances serving as inspiration include the Triple Two-Step, the Cowboy Cha Cha, and Cotton-Eyed Joe. And the performers have taken to wearing the tight jeans, big skirts, kerchiefs, hats, and pointy-toed cowboy boots necessary to pull off the desired effect. But this is not a show about stereotypes. McConneloug creates movement-based works that run roughshod over the expectations associated with their subject matter: Her 2001 Palace of Dreams, for instance, an homage to the lavish Busby Berkeley style, featured performers donning scuba flippers for a big dance number--while somehow maintaining a sense of grace. So too, McConneloug clearly has a genuine affection for all things country western, and it shows through her willingness to play with the iconography of the genre rather than simply poke fun at it.

McConneloug calls her nearly 10-year-old troupe an "orchestra" because of the many talents its members bring to the stage. While most of the artists are dancers by trade, they also have other skills. Neil, for example, is an opera singer, while Spear is famous for her "Dykes Do Drag" evenings at Bryant-Lake Bowl. All, however, must be willing to suspend belief in order to interpret McConneloug's delightfully skewed imagination. "They are such a connected group of people," says their 47-year-old posse leader. "They observe with their skin and eyes by necessity. These are the types of people I'm attracted to--they have their nerve endings exposed."

Orchestra members experience an intense research process during which McConneloug explores all the possible variations on a chosen theme. "If you believe in something you're halfway there," McConneloug explains, adding that she is less interested in recreating a "world" than discovering the many different ways one can enter it. "I don't say this is what it's going to look like, I just hope for a click to happen."

In this spirit, during early rehearsals for Stand on Your Man, the group delved into the allure of riding a horse and, by extension, becoming a horse. As the performers sauntered, and later cantered, around the studio, McConneloug instructed them to think about their manes, their tails, and the riders on their backs. She even asked a colleague to come in and demonstrate her ability to whinny just like a horse, which everyone gamely attempted to imitate. The entire exercise, however, transcended the mere act of mimicking the equine personality. Instead, discussions evolved about the significance of horses, particularly in the lives and fantasies of girls.

Recently McConneloug added a new aspect to the work in a sequence titled "Taming of a Filly," in which Rousseau attempts to literally tie down the feisty Van Loon. For this scene, the performers paid a visit to Bryan Ott, a member of the Minnesota Rodeo Association, and learned to rope and tie using a wooden calf replica. "We would practice dropping the 'calf,' tying three legs together, pinning it for six seconds," says McConneloug. "It was absolute perfection in the economy of motion." In the piece, she explains, Rousseau tries to control Van Loon, and they even do a few pony tricks together. But she ultimately gallops off, leaving him behind, unsuccessful in his attempt to tame the wild at heart.

Even as McConneloug is enjoying her country-western experience, she too is already eyeing the horizon and planning for her next work. This will likely be She Captains, a salute to the swashbuckling women of the high seas. Soon the orchestra members will be trading in their six-shooters for swords. "Grace O'Malley in the 1500s was a massively successful pirate," explains McConneloug, who's been plumbing books of old sea shanties for material. "I'm also interested in Anne Bonnie and Mary Reid, and exploring the whole idea that they were actually lovers."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, McConneloug and Her Orchestra are putting the finishing touches on Stand on Your Man. They've been scouting the Twin Cities for those old bouncy horses on springs found in playgrounds years ago. Her company manager recently tried to buy a broken one off some kids who had it in their front yard. "They said you have to wait until our dad comes home," howls McConneloug, imagining the bewilderment caused by the scene. "The things we do!" Cattle rustling is one thing, apparently, but stealing a tenderfoot's pony--that's a crime.

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