It’s easy to hear how the songs of Lemolo might inspire creative movement. Built around lyrical melodic lines and punctuated by big walloping percussion, the pop songs written and performed by singer-guitarist Meagan Grandall and walloper Kendra Cox invite interpretation while insisting on consequential action, or at the very least a dramatic gesture.
Something akin to this line of thought ran through the head of a Tacoma dancer last summer when she attended one of the duo’s performances at Columbia City Theater celebrating the release of its debut album, Kaleidoscope . After a year of planning and collaboration, and two-and-half months of rehearsal, that dancer and a dozen others from MLK Ballet and the Barefoot Collective offered an interpretation of the album in front of 300 onlookers at Urban Grace church in Tacoma as the band performed all eleven songs in sequential order from an onstage riser.
The Kaleidoscope Dance began with the dancers from both companies, clad in shades of blue and green, lying scattered across the stage, seemingly mid pajama party. The band, dressed entirely in stage black, played the initial keyboard tones to opener “Knives.” As Crandall sang, “All this time we’re looking up,” the dancers rose to their feet in ripples and, of course, looked up. It felt a bit clumsy, a bit obvious, but it telegraphed the intention; these dancers were to be anchored to the songs, the band providing direction and the dancers answering with movement. Subsequent numbers involved smaller groups of dancers, each company offering its interpretation of a few songs before collaborating again on the finale.
The intersection of ballet and pop music is nothing new, going back at least as far as David Byrne and Twyla Tharp’s 1981 Catherine Wheel collaboration. Yet Saturday night’s one-off had the feeling of something new, in both the positive and negative sense. The dancers were disciplined but in their poise and purpose revealed excitement for a novel performance. In particular the MLK Ballet dancers provided inventive readings, embracing the oft-opaque emotion of the songs while showing off both athleticism and imagination. The evening’s highlight came during a dark and frenzied duet performed by two MLK dancers to the song “On Again, Off Again” — which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the strongest song found on Kaleidoscope. The performances by Barefoot Collective dancers were just as energized, but faltered at times under choreography that was perhaps too literal, seeming to play-act along to the lyrics line-by-line.
Even when the dancers faltered, though, the band held them up. In the year since the release of Kaleidoscope, Grandall and Cox have learned the ins-and-outs of their songs and can play them for maximum affect. In particular, Cox’s bruising percussion adds muscle to some of the weaker points on the record. Grandall’s pleading vocals are studio perfect in any setting and, for this performance, were assisted by two back-up singers, Andrew Vait and Torry Anderson, whose contributions, while often imperceptible, added a fitting grace.
The band’s only shortcoming came because of its enthusiasm for the project. Between each song Grandall offered a “thank you” to the audience, praise for the dancers or a bit of casual banter. Charming during a regular performance, these interruptions undermined the interaction between the dancers and their muse, cutting short my own internal pondering over the wordless interpretations of the dancers, breaking the spell over and over again. On again, off again indeed.
Before the dancers and Lemolo took the stage, the audience was treated to a debut performance by a lone Sam Anderson, the tall, exceedingly polite cellist for orchestral pop group Hey Marseilles. Playing under the moniker Arkomo, Anderson was without his cello, instead holding an acoustic guitar that he plucked sparingly throughout the night and surrounded by electronic gadgetry that allowed him to work as a one-man band. There was a Moog synthesizer, and a board of affects pedals and triggers connected to an iPad preprogrammed with drum parts and piano tracks that acted as the spine for most of the songs, hypnotic multi-layered compositions that were completed by Anderson’s gauzy tenor, a voice that recalls the late Arthur Russell, another inventive cellist who liked playing with sound.
But Anderson’s compositions do not yet possess the charisma, sense of musical history or collaborative verve that Russell’s compositions do. It was sometimes difficult to watch Anderson, an expressive artist when playing his cello in the company of others, hemmed in and sometimes flummoxed by his gadgets. At least once Anderson lost track of the time signature and the songs sometimes lost their center as the bright mind that created them himself seemed hypnotized by the melisma of sounds. And still, there is promise here. The clumsiness of the compositions show an artist pushing his own boundaries, and Anderson’s sense of melody is not to be underestimated. Others are apparently hearing the possibilities; as he announced before closing his set, Anderson will be releasing the first Arkomo album on Whooping Crane Records in September. “Being my first show, I ask for a little patience between songs,” he said earlier in the night, smiling widely. “I don’t even know how this works.”