The E Street Shuffle

Danial Shapiro and Toni Pierce-Sands dancing in the dark in 'Anytown'
V. Paul Virtucio

Dancer Carl Flink and choreographer Joanie Smith sit onstage at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance and puzzle over how to convey frustration with their hands. They're seeking to evoke deep-seated irritation, the kind born of years filled with waking up to a new day that offers only unfulfilled promise. As if to counterpoint the tension, a rollicking square-dance-inspired tune by Smith's sister, Soozie Tyrell, fills the room. Several members of Shapiro & Smith Dance promenade, dip, and sway in the background. The stone-faced Flink balls his hand into a fist and methodically pounds the table in front of him. Smith slowly wipes her brow. "It's just like we've been here a thousand mornings," she quietly advises Flink. "Listen to the relentlessness of the beats."

It's early August, just three weeks before Anytown, the newest work by Smith and co-artistic-director Danial Shapiro, opens at the Southern Theater, and the artists are focused on capturing the expressive power of the music accompanying their agile postmodern movement. This is, after all, no ordinary soundtrack. The Boss himself--that is, Bruce Springsteen--gave the Minneapolis-based choreographers permission to use his music, as did his wife Patti Scialfa and Tyrell, both members of Springsteen's famed E Street Band who also have solo careers. The cast is dancing to cuts from Springsteen's most recent album, The Rising, as well as to earlier gems like "Youngstown" and "Born in the U.S.A." The evening-length piece also features songs from Tyrell's 2003 effort White Lines and from Scialfa's two albums, including the recently released 23rd Street Lullaby. Informed by the working-class experience between the two world wars but incorporating current elements as well, Anytown promises to be a collage conveying memory, loss, love, and hope.

"We picked the music because of the heart, the stories, the humanity," explains Shapiro. As a result, Smith adds, the choreographers also confronted an unusual demand on their creativity. "People feel [Springsteen's] written songs just for them and they have their own personal imagery," she explains. "The challenge for us was not to use exactly the same imagery." Smith says the choreographers believed they could rise to the occasion because they had already tackled other familiar compositions, including Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata and Ravel's "Bolero," the classical world's equivalent of classic rock hits.

Anytown had its genesis in the spring of 2002 when Shapiro and Smith visited Tyrell at Springsteen and Scialfa's New Jersey farm, where they enjoyed the opportunity to dream up ideas in a bucolic setting. After sitting on the notion of collaborating, they received a wake-up call in the form of Shapiro's prostate cancer diagnosis. "It snapped our heads around," he says. "There was no reason to wait." Slowly the choreographers pulled together ideas and returned to New Jersey to show Scialfa and Tyrell.

According to Tyrell, interviewed by phone in New York, the experience provided her with a new perspective on her music. "To see it danced was one of the most thrilling things. I even wept. It was just so different from a video," she explains, adding, "I was pretty steadfast in what I wrote before recording and presenting it; what they did was capture what I had written without being too literal." Tyrell, who is also composing music specifically for Anytown, has benefited from the task of writing for dance. "It brings out my vulnerabilities and my talents," she says. "I may write a piece and feel good about it, but it may not work for them and I get confused. It's scary but also rewarding."

The project is a creative reunion of sorts for the artists. During the mid-1980's Shapiro, Smith, Scialfa, and Tyrell used to hang out together in New York. Smith and Tyrell, who have the same father but different mothers, didn't meet until they were teenagers with a shared interest in dance. The choreographers were members of the Murray Louis Dance while the singers were performing on Manhattan corners as Trickster, an era reflected in Scialfa's 23rd Street Lullaby songs. Since those early years, says Tyrell, she and Smith always wanted to collaborate, "but it never seemed to work. It took this amount of growth and gathering over the years to get to this stage of what we do. Now is the right time for it to happen."

For Shapiro the opportunity also bolsters his improving health. After several months of chemotherapy he will perform in Anytown, and the Thursday night show will be a benefit, "PSA in the USA," supporting the work of Us TOO, the National Prostate Cancer Awareness and Advocacy Organization. Because Anytown will tour extensively, Shapiro plans to launch his own education campaign by providing prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests in theater lobbies. He wants to test one million men. So Springsteen, Scialfa, and Tyrell's music will not only inspire a dance concert, it could also help save a few lives.

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