HOOFIN’ IT AT THE OPERA HOUSE –
THE POWER OF “GRIT AND GRACE
by Ned White
April 10, 2016
Just over a week ago, Camden-based dancer/choreographer Kea Tesseyman and some thirty-odd of her Kinetic Energy Alive troupe of dancers, ages 6 to 60, put on a show at the Camden Opera House that is all too rare an event in midcoast Maine. Dance, start to finish, no frou-frou, no fireworks or dizzying lights or smoke machines – just the pure spectacle of dance performance that felt fine and finished, inspiring, sometimes eye-popping, energetic, and crowd-pleasingly foot-stompingly fun. It’s a good thing the Opera House is solidly built, because watching “Grit and Grace” I sensed some quaking in the rafters.
I write this from the perspective of someone who sat in the third row on their opening night, Friday, April 1, purely as a spectator. True, my wife was one of the dancers, I know Kea and a couple of the others in the group, and I’ve written about dance before – mostly modern – when I was working in public television, focusing on new dance designed specifically for camera. But Friday night, I separated myself from all that, just wanting to enjoy the show and let it wash over me. It worked beautifully – “Grit and Grace” was a visual and emotional delight from start (“Puttin’ On The Ritz”) to finale (Macklemore’s wildly inventive and rowdy “Downtown”).
“Emotional” is the operative word because Kea designed the whole show flow as a journey more of the heart than the mind, with just the right blend of music, movement, costume, makeup, skilled stagecraft – and a mix of dance genres to stretch (and highlight) the talents of the whole company and take us through a range of “heart” responses. Irving Berlin’s classic “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” with its maddening offbeats and quirky time signatures, opened as a crisply arranged tableau of dancers crossing through one another, upstage, downstage – pure fun and smiles. Through deft pacing of duets, group numbers, little kids and teens and adults, “The Blues Brothers,” a gathering of monkeys marveling at the arrival of a banana, floor dance, contemporary, modern, ballet moves, hip-hop, leaps and carries and pirouettes and spins – it amassed as a one-hour (too short! too short!!) festival for the eyes and ears. When we get to the punchy, ever-surprising kinetic tableau of “Downtown,” with performers nailing perfect rapid-fire lip-syncing with Macklemore, we’re on our feet for their bows, and not a little bit misty-eyed. It’s a little bit like falling in love with something that’s come, and now has to go.
I’ve been a “dance widower” with Kinetic Energy Alive for more than two years now (and I don’t mind at all, because my wife Carla thrives on every minute of it) and I think I have a grasp of what it’s about. It starts with Kea, as good and versatile a dancer as I’ve seen in my adult life, and how easily she drives herself and her students across the broad spectrum of soulfulness and technical challenge. She gets into their hearts and minds, wheedles and inveighs, assures and supports, and it’s one tough ongoing job: some dancers arrive at KEA (now where did that acronym come from?) as wounded birds, carrying various personal burdens, and emerge months later in full flight. Wow. To cite another Macklemore hit featured in a previous performance, with Kea and KEA “The Ceiling Can’t Hold Us.”
Friday night, the house was nearly full, and it was SRO Saturday. That’s the only thing about “Grit and Grace” that wasn’t surprising. Great, great show.