DJD brings bittersweet vaudeville era to life with sparkle and shine

By Stephan Bonfield - Calgary Herald
3 min read | April 28, 2017

When spring refuses to come in Calgary it really doesn’t matter when we have Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, who turned up the heat in an instant this past week with their latest eclectic circus, Modern Vaudevillians.

The show has it all: smart ensemble moves, sensuous energy, a clown or two, a lithe aerialist (Patrick Chan) with stunning core strength, a lady with a teapot on her head, sultry flapper fan dances, improvised theatre-troupe tap and soft shoe, extended razzmatazz dance improv and it all combined to make a whole lot of magic at the DJD Dance Centre.

Artistic director Kimberley Cooper invited her guest choreographers to trope on a two-word theme “Modern Vaudevillians” and the results were diverse and surprising, but never less than a delight, even when some of the acts dipped into the dark end of the subconscious pool.

Mostly, the show alternates a healthy dose of razzmatazz with song, dance with showmanship while always leading with virtuoso theatrical elements foremost in mind. What the show captured best was the seemingly inexhaustible wealth of vaudevillian tropes from the sassy to the surreal, exactly what it might have been like to attend a vaudeville production a century or more ago.

And once again with superb music provided by the suave Rubim de Toledo (bass), diverse Chris Andrew on piano/keyboards and the indomitable Jon McCaslin on drums, all on a bandstand upstage centre, the intimacy fit with the vaudeville world of interactive music and dance. Even better was Allison Lynch’s Scatology lesson at top speed and stamina to How High the Moon and A-Tisket, A-Tasket in her breathlessly fun, virtuoso Ella Fitzgerald tribute.

But there were serious moments too, such as Troy Emery Twigg’s touching monologue to Lewis the Clown, whose performance helped a young Blackfoot survive difficult times. Or Linnea Swan’s piece at the beginning of Act II alternated the sublime with the macabre but always beautiful. I really could watch any choreography by Swan — always thoughtful, creatively secure with an artistic comment on art even if it is prefaced by a lunatic interview with a hilarious, diva-styled director Shayne Johnson about Cats on Vaudeville in which his great grandfather was unfortunately eaten by his own main act.

But the most involving and creatively daring number was the Act I finale, Inside Crowd, a reference to the lively conjurings of someone’s subconscious mind, let out for a midnight frolic in mid-sleep. A dreaming performance artist (Dejuan Thomas) conjures up eight aspects of his own personality in a self-mocking grotesquerie of fun and fear, channelling everything a self-absorbed actor keeps buried within, but choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg lets it all out for a free romp. It’s incredible fun and in its special way, spellbinding to watch.

The performers have us hooked into their unvarnished insanity, a loony-tune aspect of vaudeville that exposed the inner weird and wasn’t afraid to meet it face to face, featuring a splendid array of demons couched deep within the psyche and channelled from events and people in the actor’s life, recast in a surreal rondo form. Using fragmented singing, acting, drama queen insecurities, performance injuries, all via recurring musical themes, the best sections provided glorious free-form dancing juxtaposed with some beautiful floor work from left to right, and some lovely theatricality. This is a beautiful and strangely satisfying piece, with its own peaceful resolution telling us that the artist’s demons never go away, but instead we learn to contend with them.

I loved that they never lost their balance or their authenticity — not once — always remaining perfectly in character, pulling off a very difficult series of panels that continually kept me in the moment. Such broadly accomplished performers, true vaudevillian storytellers, can’t pull this sort of thing off unless every muscle is committed to the role.

The ending showed this best when Peter Balkwill, in a charming Buster Keaton moment of feigned clutsiness, pulled down the entire set. What else was there to do when that happens but tap dance on its reinforced wooden backing (of course to save the brand new floor from being ruined). When the whole cast came out to tap dance it was a glorious conclusion to a magical show.

And that’s the spirit of vaudeville. It’s an authentic channelling of multiple personas with multi-dimensional performing possibilities, an era of persons blessed with many talents overflowing with ideas who could bring laughter and delight. “You never know what you’re going to get until it’s made” Kim Cooper said, and that probably describes vaudeville’s eclectic spirit best. For one wistful night at DJD Dance Centre it all came alive once again, and all was right with the world.