By MIKE DUNHAM
Randall Craig Fleischer's "Symphony in Step" drew a rousing response from the audience at Atwood Concert Hall when it was premiered by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra on Saturday Night.
The piece features dancers of Step Afrika, a troupe specializing in "step-dancing," the jazz-tap dance form that uses the dancer's body as a percussion instrument. Stomping feet, clicking fingers, claps and slaps drive the rhythm. The group is well-drilled and remarkably precise. They were at least half the reason for the crowd's enthusiastic standing ovation - probably more than half.
The conductor was the composer, though that title is most correctly applied only to the outer movements. The second "dance" used traditional and eye-popping Zulu forms. In regional costume - and without their taps - the dancers delivered a frantic procession of sensational springs, spins and cartwheels. The orchestra sat it out, with only a few members of the percussion section occasionally joining with two conga players at the back of the stage, who played throughout.
The third movement, "Deacon's Dance," an elegant rendering of religious conversion and baptism in dance, was built around hymns sung by a gospel chorus of local singers. The most familiar, "Wade in the Water," was also the most moving part of the piece. The vocal soloists were Ali de Gusman and Stephen Blanchett.
Fleischer's main compositional work was in the first movement - in which violin soloist Dawn Lindsay strolled the stage playing a cadenza that introduced the dancers in spotlit squares - and the long finale, "Nxt/Step: Jazz/Symphonic." The latter was based on a three note motif, sometimes expanded into a seven-note variant by Lindsay, who returned to close out the show. There were several blocked sections where the dancers could display favorite choreographic routines. One performed on chairs set up in a line particularly amused the audience. It ended as Lindsay ushered dancers off one by one, her seven-note tune acting like a lullaby, until only one remained.
Lauren MacKenzie Miller's lighting made a strong contribution to the spectacle. In addition to the square spots focused on soloists while the orchestra played in a bluish backlight, there were projections suggesting jungle and skyscraper images. The middle two movements featured costuming, but for opening and close the dancers went more formal, white shirts, ties, jackets and walking canes.
"Symphony in Step" is good performance art, good dance, good entertainment, exciting and fixating to watch. Stripped of the dancers, however, the music is well-crafted audio wallpaper, background to the main attraction.
One might say the same of the excerpts from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" ballet, performed without dancers in the first half of the concert. Technically, this too is background music, but it has a life of its own that doesn't include ballerinas. There was an understandable burst of applause after the Adagio and the Waltz holds its own with or without any waltzers in sight. If you want to catch the full effect, a HD broadcast of the Bolshoi's production will be carried in Anchorage theaters on Nov. 20.
The First Orchestral Suite of J.S. Bach opened the night. It was a straight-forward reading, blessedly free from the eccentricities, evolutions or steroids that some contemporary interpreters find irresistible when presenting baroque music. The ensemble was pared down to about half the strings, two oboes and a bassoon. The violins sounded better than I've heard in some time. Fleischer made some inspired dynamic choices in the final movements. This, too, was conceived as dance music, he reminded us, though people need to be reminded of that nowadays. Few people would recognize a gavotte or be able to execute it on the dance floor, but Bach's score for the dance from this suite is one of classical music's greatest hits.
The program will be repeated at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 13. Tickets are available at centertix.net.