PHILADELPHIA — Five years ago, very few female choreographers were getting work in ballet. That’s been changing. Just see the closing sentence of BalletX’s program note for Penny Saunders, choreographer-in-residence at Grand Rapids Ballet: “In the 2017-18 season, Saunders is excited to be collaborating with Cincinnati Ballet, BalletX, Missouri Contemporary Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, SFDanceworks, and Tulsa Ballet 2, as well as making her first full-length for Grand Rapids Ballet.”
This would not matter if Ms. Saunders were a cliché maker. But her “Rock-a-Bye,” one of three world premieres on the BalletX’s Summer Series program, suggests that she is a remarkably fresh mind, with talents for suspense and surrealism. In this, she has found an ideal composer in Rosie Langabeer whose original music for this work — Ms. Langabeer also sings and performs, with two other musicians — casts one spell after another.
The stage world here keeps changing, as do the dramas within it. The music alters too. Some sound is taped (you hear crickets in one passage), but the live musicians often change instruments. Above all, Ms. Langabeer and Tara Middleton sing (sometimes a cappella), combining lyricism and rhythm in ways that make each vocal line eventful.
As “Rock-a-Bye” begins, one woman dances alone before a red curtain, behind which emerge nine pairs of hands, with their own choreography — rhythmic, even orchestral. Then that curtain rises, revealing musicians and dancers in what might be a studio apartment. People sit, stand, walk: The stage area often looks like a play. Lighting, by Michael Korsch, continually transforms the space.
22 MARCH 2018, COMMON ROOM, HASTINGS
Reviewed by ESTER DU FRESNE
I receive a cheery welcome from one of the amiable bar staff, which sets the tone for the rest of the night: familiar, intimate, joyful.
A small crowd of revellers mill, and the chatter indicates the people here have seen Rosie Langabeer perform before and know they’re in for a good show. The artist herself, New Zealand-born but Philadelphia-based Rosie, mingles with the group while clutching a bowl of her mum’s vegetarian soup. She gives me a cookbook tip and wears hiking boots with her dress.
On stage, Rosie alternates between accordion and keyboard. Drums are played by Robbie Beamer from Tennessee, whose other job is making funny skits. The songs cover an incredibly broad range, especially considering there are only three instruments involved.
French love songs evoke a feeling of 1930s Paris. Pirate songs are bracketed with the throwing of doubloons (aka foil-covered chocolate coins) to the audience. An original and supremely creative medley samples an eclectic mix including Destiny’s Child’s Say my Name, Simon & Garfunkel’s Cecilia, The Exponent’s Victoria and Mellencamp’s Jack & Diane (you may notice a theme there). A cover of Some Velvet Morninghas a touch of The Door’s This is the End about it, whereas a rollicking rock beat – described as surfy pirate music – wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tarantino soundtrack.
It’s not the last time I’m reminded of Tarantino – the set includes a cover of Captain Kangaroo.
The performance is almost a revue. Rosie chats away between songs, easy and comical, with both the audience and her co-performer. Her energy is entirely infectious and she emanates pure joy while indulging her creativity on stage.
Other tracks include renditions of Sia’s Chandelier; Tom Waits’ Diamonds & Gold – decidedly less grim than the original; a toe-tapping Gutter Black; and a very fun Shame and Scandal in the Family with its calypso beat and themes of incest and infidelity.
Rosie’s voice is clear and strong, her proud Kiwi accent juxtaposing pleasingly with Robbie’s American-accented harmonies. Robbie’s drum skills are better demonstrated in the second half of the show when he gets to let loose on tracks like Being Alive (aka the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive) and an on-the-spot adaptation, Wipe Me (aka The Surfaris’ Wipe Out). The pair’s rapport and concord are obvious, and their creative and occasionally improvised lyrics are hilarious.
By the end of the night, several men have shed their self-consciousness to perform some experimental dance moves. The audience has laughed, toe-tapped and been transported variously to the high seas, Italian osterie and fair old Auckland-town. I leave with a sense that I’ve spent the night in the company of good friends, despite having arrived alone.
I’m just a little bit in love with Rosie Langabeer. From the first time that I saw her onstage in lab coat and protective glasses, playing the musical saw to the accompaniment of an electric drill, I knew she was the girl for me.
In comparison, tonight in the Spiegeltent, she walks the line between Pierrot and Weimar-era music hall performer. With Rosie you never know what you’re going to get. The atmosphere is more suited to a group of friends around somebody’s kitchen table at 2am than a formal event as part of a prestigious arts festival, as is alluded to by her every sideways glance and offhand quip. She promises a collection of musical treasures that run the gamut from sanguine to melancholy, and she delivers by the bucket load.
Whether she’s covering Tom Waits or Tom Petty, reimagining Dent May or Sia, she makes the stage and the music her own. Self-confessed guilty pleasures are subverted by a change in pace and key that forces the audience to confront the passive aggressive nature of familiar lyrics that we would otherwise chant mindlessly into the abyss. There’s a wicked glint in her eye as she holds up a mirror to the best and worst of us with a nameless (no spoilers!) ‘European’ song that quickly reveals itself to be a rendition of Swedish 80s rock band, Europe’s The Final Countdown, delivered in what I can only deduce by process of elimination to be Esperanto.
Further thrills are elicited by the emergence, halfway through the set, of darling of the local music scene, Anton Wuts. Attired in dazzling white, as though ‘dressed by his autistic pet cockatoo’, with gleaming sax in one hand and a robust glass of red in the other, he firmly puts the bomp in the bomp bomp bomp. Fuelled by the power of rhythmic onomatopoeia, he communes with Rosie’s accordion and Neil Watson’s guitar, building to a musically dense crescendo, punctuated by giggles at the absurdity of it all. It’s a joke to which we’re all party, made no clearer than in the encore, the half-century-old classic Batman, with Rosie’s imaginings substituting variously ‘tentman’, ‘earringsman’, and ‘womanman’, among others. Adored by her audience, Rosie Langabeer is a force to be reckoned with, funny, fierce and fearless.
“Rosie Langabeer can play outside one minute and the next you hear a deep subtle swing, a rare kind of pulse that you can feel in your bones. A gifted composer and leader in her own right, an extraordinary side-women when required. Moving from percussive, richly dissonant voicings to heart-stopping arpeggiated runs…Her iconoclastic playing delighted the audience.”
“…the whole production is pretty dazzling. The musicians — trombone, violin, accordion, tuba and more are in the instrument mix — play the audience into the theater and set a festive tone that somehow also bends time. The performance pushes three hours but seems half that long as the gung-ho actors and resourceful band serve up a string of surprises. Compared with the Mark Rylance Broadway production of the same play that just closed over the weekend, think of this as the poor man’s “Twelfth Night,” not just in ticket price but also in look and attitude. Pig Iron goes for slapdash — expertly planned and executed slapdash — and hits the mark.”
Nothing But Madman (Toby’s Tango) – from Twelfth Night by Pig Iron Theatre Company.
Twelfth Night, Pig Iron Theatre Company
New York Theater Review, 2014
“the show is buoyed along by a manic undercurrent even in its sharpest, most exquisitely clear-eyed moments, of which there are many. Like composer Rosie Langabeer’s music, its highs spin wildly and its lows are mournful and bottomless.”
The Food Of Love – from Twelfth Night by Pig Iron Theatre Company.
New York City • Feb 7, 2014 •
Pig Iron honors the location of historical Illyria (present-day Croatia) with a Balkan brass band that greets us as we enter the theater, and sticks around for the show. From the frenetic blasts of the trumpet to the haunting groan of the accordion, this irresistible music underscores much of the proceedings, further enriching the mood of the play. It’s also really fun music to drink by, as evidenced by the raucous wedding scene that leaves most of the band members passed out on the floor. (You should try the coconut stout in the lobby, by the way.)
“Ms. Langabeer’s contribution is crucial to the work’s evocation of period, place and dream. She and three other musicians play onstage, sometimes on eccentric electronic instruments invented by Neil Feather. It all supports Mr. Neenan’s choreographic fantasy: dancers as plane parts and passengers, crewmen and islanders, birds and letter writers, the missing and those who miss them.”
Karangahape Cowboy – from Sunset, o639 Hours
“Mr. Neenan and Ms. Langabeer shrewdly integrate the 10 dancers with a band of four multi-instrumentalists. The music ranges from ’30s swing for a New Year’s Eve scene in Auckland (“This one goes out to the Captain,” Ms. Langabeer croons) to a woozy soundscape during an Act II layover in Pago Pago. Letters, read aloud, thread through the score, a reminder of the Captain’s cargo. The stage bristles with the energy of a busy transit hub, and Maiko Matsushima’s décor — four warped, suspended panels ascending on a diagonal — suggest both a steady takeoff and scattered debris.”
I Was A Diamond – from Sunset, o639 Hours