Percussive Sensation

STOMP highlights a weekend full of on-campus dance performances

When STOMP performer Shola Cole was a student at the University of Connecticut, majoring in music and women's studies, she had a backstage job at the theater.

So when STOMP came to town, she saw--and heard--the high-velocity troupe up close. The company, alighting at Centennial Hall this weekend for five shows, delivers a distinctive percussive show that has performers making music out of everything from trash-can lids to brooms. (See below for more dance on campus this weekend.)

Cole is a classical musician who plays piano and trombone and sings, but she was entranced by STOMP's wild, elemental sound.

"I said, 'Next time I see that show, I'm going to be in it,'" Cole recalled last week, speaking from a hotel room on the road in Seattle.

She was right. After college, and after working for several years for a Connecticut nonprofit as a fundraiser and administrator, she happened to see an audition notice for STOMP. She went up to Boston on a Tuesday, got a message Friday that she'd been hired, and became a STOMPer-in-training the next Monday. That was three years ago.

"I spent the first year working at the STOMP show in Boston, but I've been touring since May 2004," she said. "We do 38 to 42 weeks of touring a year."

Audiences seem to have an insatiable appetite for the full-body rhythms of STOMP, and reviewers regularly award it superlatives, from "electrifying" to "exuberant" to "phenomenal."

"It's an exploration of the music of everyday objects," Cole said. During each week of performances, the troupe runs through such everyday objects as two gallons of paint and 288 liters of water, 12 boxes of matches, 20 pounds of sand and five rolls of tape.

Closer to dance than theater, the show has no narrative and no dialogue. The eight performers on stage gyrate with brooms, flash lighters on and off in unison, and crumple up plastic bags, all the while moving to their own percussive sounds.

"Some of the performers have a strong dance background," Cole said, "but there's a large pool of varied backgrounds. We have actors, musicians, building contractors, comedians and classically trained musicians. It makes it unique."

A New York troupe has been thrashing its way across the stage at the Orpheum Theatre since 1994, and an English counterpart is more or less permanently installed in London. One touring group regularly travels Europe, while Cole is part of the Americas tour--she's been to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, as well as all over the United States

The percussive sounds have their origins in music from all over the world, she said, especially Africa and Brazil.

"We got a wonderful response in Latin America, especially in Brazil and Mexico," she said. "So many of our pieces are based on their rhythms. The people in Brazil understood the music, the roots of where the show came from." The show's finale, for instance, is a Brazilian samba danced to drums.

But oddly enough, the energetic show that Cole calls a "percussive sensation" began on the streets of England. In the early '80s, creators Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas were buskers--street performers--in the seaside town of Brighton. Busking is an old English tradition dating all the way back to the performers at market fairs in the Middle Ages, continuing on through the traveling players of Shakespeare's time and up to the street musicians of today.

"I lived in England," Cole said. "I'd see so many buskers on the street. One guy was a one-man band with a harmonica and hat for money."

Cresswell and McNicholas had a duo called Pookiesnackenburger that did a "clackety-clack street performance," and a street theater troupe called Cliff Hanger. Eventually, the two groups landed on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, performing "street comedy musicals." These earlier troupes evolved into Yes/No People, which moved into music and video, and won critical acclaim and awards. In 1991, Cresswell and McNicholas launched STOMP.

Early on, STOMP won offbeat prizes like Best of Fringe for performances at the Edinburgh festival, but it has since moved into the mainstream. It's picked up an Obie Award in New York and an Olivier Award for Best Choreography in London. Film versions garnered Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award nominations. Its showbiz razzle-dazzle may be far removed from its origins on the streets, but the demands on the performers are as strenuous as ever. New STOMPers are trained in jumping and swirling and stomping for at least seven weeks, and then spend a year or two in on-the-job training.

Cole said she keeps up by "cross-training as much as I can. I do Pilates, yoga and jogging, and the elliptical machine. STOMP has kept me in shape."

At the other end of campus, at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, the UA Dance Ensemble steps into the last concerts of the season.

Highlights include a new work by Doug Nielsen, the new modern professor hired in January. Nielsen wowed audiences with his UA debut work in February, an experimental modern piece that challenged the whole idea of performance. This one, "Come Back to Sorrento," is a dance for 10 inspired by film noir and the music of Alberto Iglesias. Professor James Clouser also premieres a dance, "Sleep Out."

The faculty concerts, danced by students, are on Friday and Saturday nights. Student choreography is performed Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

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