The way Joe Chvala tells the story behind “Flying Feet — The Percussion Project,” he and his dance company wanted to “create a bare-bones show we could tour.”
Bare-bones, in this case, is three people in a show that opens the Hit It! Festival running Dec. 6-9 and Dec. 12-16 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.
“We’d just come off ‘Between the Fire and Ice’ ” in fall 2005, Chvala said recently.
Chvala and his percussive-dance crew, known as the Flying Foot Forum, usually create epic productions based on Norse mythology that seemingly feature a cast of thousands. (OK, not that many. But there are a lot.) “Between the Fire and Ice (Mjøllnir II),” commissioned by the Walker Art Center, falls into that epic category.
It was time to simplify, he said. “And the financial truth of the times is that presenters don’t have as much money to bring people in as they used to. We used to travel with as many as 20 people. … It was fun, but an organizational nightmare.” (The company’s total revenue at the end of 2006 was $53,610.)
“Flying Feet — The Percussion Project” includes Chvala, his longtime creative partner Karla Grotting and percussion master Peter O’Gorman (also a member of Mary Ellen Childs’ highly choreographed percussion group, Crash). They wear simple black tops, pants and jazz shoes. They make all the music themselves, while dancing — whether they’re tapping out rhythms on the floor, slapping their cheeks, chests and thighs with tonal melody, or playing pots, pans or triangles.
In “Serif,” for instance, the three performers swish and arc drum brushes of various sizes (and materials) through the air and across the floor, generating visual patterns of shifting tones and pitches. In “Trines,” Grotting and Chvala flank O’Gorman with sharp tap grooves as he drums. “I Saw Esau,” based on nursery rhymes, features silly vocalizing, slap dancing and hand patterns that create intricate foolery.
The trio premiered the work in New York to ecstatic reviews, then performed to sold-out audiences here at home. “I really enjoyed creating this show,” Chvala said. “We were really low-key. We’d get together and try out new stuff, then quit when we wanted to. There weren’t any coordination issues; there wasn’t any dancer wrangling,” he said, laughing.
A percussive festival
The show’s success last year inspired Southern Theater curator Jeff Bartlett to create this year’s first Hit It! Festival, with “FF — PP” as the opener. “I thought Joe’s show could definitely be brought back, and at the same time I was talking with Savage Aural Hotbed about their next show,” Bartlett said.
“A little light bulb went off in my mind, and I thought why don’t we put these things together to make a percussion and percussive dance festival, and hmm, who else could we get?” The four-man Savage Aural was a given. “They’re industrial, testosterone-driven, bombastic and innovative in a really imaginative way,” Bartlett said. “They do stuff with a skill-saw you can’t even imagine.”
He also invited Childs‘ group, Crash, to do its first show since 2000. “We’re the refined, elegant contrast to Savage Aural,” Childs says, laughing. And whereas Chvala “integrates sound and rhythm into what he does as an integral part of the dance,” she says, “I integrate movement as an integral part of the rhythm.”
Intrigued since her youthful days as a dancer with how percussionists move, Childs writes her percussion compositions “with an eye toward how the instruments are set up, what the sticking patterns are — which also means how the arms are going to move through space — and what the percussionists will be required to do with their bodies. I started out with drumming pieces with special sticking patterns, and years later I had drummers on wheeled chairs careening around the space playing from drum to drum.”
Also in the fest are the folky, family-friendly Wild Goose Chase Cloggers, who have invited the DeLaSouljah Steppers from DeLaSalle High School, the Xi chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Hop Team from the University of Minnesota, and local hip hop artist RDM to cross-culturally investigate percussive dance.
What: Hit It! Festival
Where: Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
When: Various times, Dec. 6-9, Dec. 12-16
Cost: $18 per performance; $20 for sampler Dec. 6 and Dec. 12