Twistin' to the Oldies

Pilobolus, the most modern and unconventional of dance troupes, this weekend will perform in Tucson to klezmer, a traditional Jewish music hundreds of years old.

Granted the Klezmatics, who will play with Pilobolus only on evening two of the dance company's two-night gig at Centennial Hall, perform an updated klezmer "that walks the line between traditional and contemporary life," as trumpeter and composer Frank London puts it. London won a commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to compose a piece in collaboration with Pilobolus's Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken. The music for their 32-minute "Davenan" draws on sources as diverse as tango and Fellini-movie music. Still, he says, the bulk of its instrumentation and songs come from the old Jewish folk tradition.

"We're always looking backward, connecting with the traditional texts, songs and instruments," says London, speaking by phone from his East Village apartment. "But we're artists in the contemporary modern world."

London's own introduction to klezmer was fortuitous. Along about mid-century, after traditional Jewish culture was forcibly eradicated in Eastern Europe, its American counterpart seemed to be dying of its own accord. New York's vibrant Yiddish theater all but disappeared; likewise, klezmer music. Young couples, eager to assimilate, no longer wanted the old-timey music at their weddings.

"The interest was getting lost," says London, "but some musicians were playing the music still. The old masters were still alive."

Young musicians like London sought out these masters to learn a music that had thrived in Eastern Europe since the 18th century. The Klezmatics started up in 1986, part of the second wave of an American klezmer revival that began in the early '70s. The Klezmatics' lineup matches that of the traditional ensembles, which typically included drums, tsimbl (hammered dulcimer), violin, bass and accordion, and a wind section replete with trumpet, trombone, flute and clarinet. If a piano was available in a village, the klezmorim used it. Even in those days, klezmer absorbed influences from other musical traditions, adding a hurdy-gurdy here or a Bulgarian kaval there. Yiddish songs were not strictly part of klezmer music, London notes, but they often got sung anyway; the Klezmatics have a singer, Lorin Sklamberg.

Enthusiastic critics have called the Klezmatics' rendition of the wild music everything from mystical to ecstatic. They've often collaborated before with other artists, including the playwright Tony Kushner and the violinist Itzhak Perlman. Twyla Tharp used a Klezmatics piece for a dance.

"One of the things the Klezmatics love to do is collaborate," says London. "The interaction with Pilobolus was great."

The Friday-night Pilobolus concert, sans the Klezmatics, offers "A Selection," a work made in collaboration with author, illustrator and set designer Maurice Sendak, and set to the works of Czech composers Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, who both died in Auschwitz. Also on the Friday program: "Tsu-ku-tsu" (a full company work with taiko drummer Leonard Eto), "Femme Notre" and "Gnomon."

The Klezmatics will accompany Pilobolus dancers live on "Davenan" at the Saturday-night concert. That evening the dancers will also perform "Apoplexy" and "Pseudopodia," to taped music.

Pilobolus performs two concerts at the UA's Centennial Hall: the dance troupe alone at 8 p.m. Friday, January 26, and with the Klezmatics at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 27. Tickets are $22 to $34 for the Friday show, $26 to $38 for the Saturday show, with assorted discounts available for children, students and UA employees. For more information call the box office at 621-3341.