A couple of years ago, Ashley Bowman, co-artistic director of Artifact Dance Project, pitched an idea to the Tucson music duo Ryanhood.
"Ashley wanted to tell John Dillinger's life story through dance," Ryanhood's Cameron Hood recalls – and she wanted to set the dance to Ryanhood's music.
Hood and musical partner Ryan David Green were dubious.
"I told her we're probably not the right band to tell this story," Hood says. "Our music is pop-rock, nothing like the musical forms of the 1930s. And we're very earnest in the songs we write and sing."
That earnest tone, they thought, would be a mismatch for a work about a violent bank robber.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
"I've thought about this for a long time," Bowman told them. "You're absolutely the right band."
Bowman wanted to get at Dillinger's heart, at why he became the man he did. Ryanhood, she declared, had the sensitivity to help her get there.
"With that much flattery," Hood says, half-joking, "we said OK."
This Thursday, after two years in the making, Surrounding Dillinger opens for a four-day run at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre on the UA campus.
Nine dancers will tell Dillinger's story through Artifact's trademark blend of ballet and contemporary dance, dressed in period 1930s costumes, from trench coats and fedoras for the men, to dresses and high-waisted pants for the women.
Andrew Ranshaw, who danced lead pig Napoleon in last fall's Animal Farm concert, will star as the notorious Dillinger.
No fewer than five musicians will play live on stage with the dancers. Ryanhood mainstays Hood and Green, both guitarists, will be joined by three other musicians, Ryan Alfred on bass, Paul Jenkins on piano and Nadim Shehab on drums.
The band, which just this month released its sixth album, Yearbook, will play a combo of existing Ryanhood songs, a few new ones penned for this show, and several covers of songs by other Tucson bands, Carlos Arzate & The Kind Souls, Sweet Ghosts and The Great Collision (a Ryan David Green project).
"Their music is a perfect match for the story," just as she anticipated, says Bowman, a Ryanhood fan from way back. "It lends itself to telling a story."
Tucsonans are fascinated with Dillinger, she notes, in large part because the Chicago gangster, sought by law officers nationwide, was arrested in the sleepy Old Pueblo in 1934. The Hotel Congress celebrates the capture every January in its Dillinger Days. During a bad fire at the hotel, firefighters had tangled with a man who didn't seem to want to be evacuated; seeing his picture in a true crime magazine a few days later, they realized he was a member of the Dillinger gang. In short order, the Tucson cops pounced on Dillinger and his men in a house in West University.
But "very little of the show takes place in Tucson," says choreographer Bowman, who specializes in creating historic story ballets. "That was a small part of his life. The show is not so much about re-creating that historic moment."
It focuses instead on formative events, from Dillinger's loss of his mother when he was three to his sufferings at the hands of an abusive father.
"We set up the reasons Dillinger chooses this life," she says.
The dance has no narration, and in a way, she says, Surrounding Dillinger is musically like Movin' Out, the evening-length Twyla Tharp work with a score of preexisting Billy Joel songs. Joel and Tharp picked out songs in his rep to construct a girl-meets-boy tale set during the Vietnam War era.
When work on Dillinger first began, Hood was so busy with Ryanhood business—recording an album, performing and touring—that Ashley set about mapping out the scenes herself. But Hood was soon drawn in.
"It's a life story being told with no dialogue, so it has to communicate clearly," Hood says. "I started to study his life. We created two lists side by side—a list of events in his life and a list of story points" that would follow a persuasive narrative arc.
Then he combed through the Ryanhood catalogue to figure out which songs might "coordinate with parts of his life—the young husband, the bank robber," and so on. "It was an interesting puzzle for me."
Hood immersed himself so deeply in shaping the work that he gets credit as scriptwriter and co-producer. He even developed an eye for dance, Bowman says, came to almost every rehearsal and even made suggestions about movement.
"I'm hugely in awe of the dancers," he says. "They're artists and athletes and actors. They deepened and rose to the occasion."
Bowman is not dancing in the show but her co-artistic director, Claire Hancock, dances the lead female role of Billie, Dillinger's girlfriend. Logan Moon Penisten is Baby Face Nelson, a gang member, and Alan Gonzalez is Red Hamilton, Dillinger's right-hand man.
Brendan Kellam plays Melvin Purvis, an FBI agent who pursued the bank robber. Ellie Housman is Anna Cumpanas, the owner of a Chicago brothel, who's being pressured by the feds to rat Dillinger out.
Hood and Green, who met in the late '90s at University High School, formed Ryanhood 14 years ago. But in this long period of working in music, Hood says, he'd never before been involved with dance.
"I didn't expect to love this process so much," he says. "I have fallen in love with story structure, and with dance and choreography. The process of telling the story through dance used 20 new parts of my brain that I didn't know I had."