‘Stranger’ delivers an immersive Woody Guthrie experience
Woody Guthrie never goes out of style.
Now seems an especially pertinent moment to remember America’s twangy and radical troubadour, the down-home-talkin’ Okie who crisscrossed the country from the 1930s to the 1950s, creating a prolific stream of protest anthems for the common man, as well as books and drawings.
Many of his song titles sound celebratory: “Bound for Glory.” “Pastures of Plenty.” The most iconic of all, “This Land Is Your Land.”
But Guthrie’s lyrics always have a bite, and he kept the words “This machine kills fascists” scrawled on the box of his guitar.
Choreographer Annie Arnoult, who has been a fan for years, hopes to capture Guthrie’s essence in the new environmental dance-theater piece ” ’Bout a Stranger.” (The title echoes a line from his song “Pretty Boy Floyd.”)
“You could work on this 10 years and have a million different shows,” Arnoult said.
Supported by an individual artist grant from the city through the Houston Arts Alliance, she collaborated to create the 60-minute performance with roots-music scholar Garreth Broesche and his quartet, plus 14 dancers from her company, Open Dance Project, and a large production team.
They’ve incorporated excerpts from the “Woody and Lefty Lou Show,” Guthrie’s writings, recorded interviews and liner notes, aiming for what Arnoult calls an “absolute fiction” rather than a linear narrative.
“We’re living in his mindscape, peeking into his memories,” she said. “Life on the farm collides with life on trains and life in Greenwich Village. We’re playing with scale in that regard.”
Guthrie’s head wasn’t exactly a healthy place. He died at age 57 of Huntington’s disease, a genetic neurological disorder that can manifest for years in shakiness, impulsiveness, mood swings and visions.
Nearly every family, including her own, has dealt with some kind of mental illness, Arnoult said. “I’m intrigued by people who fight through it, and you see how their art was influenced by it and came out of it.”
She and Broesche also wanted to explore relevant sociopolitical ideas - issues Guthrie championed that are still not resolved, such as the “gigantic split between rich and poor” and the plights of migrant workers and immigrants.
“You don’t have to look far in Woody’s work for that,” Arnoult said.
Some of the dance’s gestures invoke the repetitive motions of farmers and factory workers. And the audience will be in the middle of it. Literally.
Arnoult has staged ” ’Bout a Stranger” within the small black-box theater at MATCH and asked set designer Ryan McGettigan to consume the space, so viewers can’t stand on the edge.
“Some of the performance happens on the edge and will be better seen from the middle,” she said. “It’s not a place where 30 people can congregate.”
Viewers can, however, sit on the benches and chairs.
Arnoult wants the audience to feel as if they’re “amongst the folk,” but she also was looking for a way to share “the dancer experience.”
“We have the best ‘seat’ in the house because we can see, feel, hear the other dancers breathing,” she said. “We think of dance as a kinetic art, but a proscenium flattens it.”
She hopes to evoke something more like the experience of viewing sculpture. Audience members who roam a bit during the show will get little “performance presents” with intimately detailed choreography.
While the dancing and music are set, the dancers have to keep their improvisational chops ready because someone could occupy a space where they were planning to be.
Activating the audience brings out “the theory nerd” in her, Arnoult said - a technique she also employs in the studio, when she and her dancers are creating work.
“I tell them, if you are bored, not engaged, you have the responsibility to make a change. What we think is the background might be your foreground.”
Site-specific and immersive dance isn’t new. A number of choreographers employ it - especially at outdoor sites - although it’s been at least five years since Houston audiences have seen an interactive set as complex as this one. (Zoe/Juniper’s “A Crack in Everything,” which played DiverseWorks in 2012, comes to mind.)
Arnoult last worked in this vein in 2012, before she returned home to Houston, with “The Jenkins Farm Project,” a production inspired by her family’s story.
She seems to have an affinity with Americana, and she likes projects that require deep research.
Her last big production, 2015′s “Whirl,” was inspired by the 1920s dance hall marathon craze, which Arnoult traced to its Houston roots. She has also made more traditionally staged dances inspired by the German renegade dance-theater-film artist Valeska Gert and the Alamo.
“I think it’s because I love stories that are real,” she said.