Behind The Scenes - Paul Taylor Dance

by Steve French

It was always a dream of mine to someday sing at Lincoln Center. I didn’t know if that dream would ever come true, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a member of BIV, it’s that anything is possible.

Tuesday night I made my Lincoln Center debut singing alongside twelve of my BIV brothers. As part of a collaboration with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) for Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, we sang the chain-gang music of Donald McKayle’s 1959 masterwork “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” from the orchestra pit of the David H. Koch Theater.

Destan Owens, a BIV member for nearly twenty years, is the featured soloist for the piece and was brought on board by Don York, longtime Music Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. I’m so thankful to Destan for reaching out to us to help bring this piece to life. It is a visceral, important work of art.

The 18-minute piece has four movements, including the nearly ten-minute title song. With very little rehearsal time available to us, we were sent mp3’s of our vocal parts to learn before the first meeting, and had enough time that first day to run through everything once. Our second rehearsal was almost two weeks later, so it was up to us to fully digest any notes we’d been given before our next meeting.

This past Sunday evening, I entered the Koch Theater through the Stage Door. This alone was a thrill, since I’ve only ever been inside the building as an audience member. This time, however, I was here to work. And get down to work we did. In a rehearsal room we had a second (and final) rehearsal dedicated to the music and were honored to have the members of DCDC in attendance. They weren’t there to dance that evening, but to simply listen to the music live for the first time, and offer their thoughts on tempo and mood. With live accompaniment for dance, it is critical to absolutely be on the same page as the dancers. If the tempo lags, the dance could fall apart.

The most special part of the evening was the arrival of the man himself, Donald McKayle. The legendary choreographer is 85 years old and recovering from brain surgery, but even sitting in a wheelchair his bearing is regal and his mind is sharp. He had been rehearsing the dancers in the days before our arrival, and now he had notes for us after listening to us sing. Whether it was a note on dynamics (“Basses should pull back to let the solo come through more…”) or pronunciation (the lyric "I don't want your old iron shackles" resonates more when the word 'iron' is  pronounced “EYE-run”, not “eye-urn”), McKayle knew every breath of the score. He graciously posed for a picture with us at the end of the night.

The next day was our chance to finally sing the piece with the dancers. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Although we knew that this music comes from a place of deep suffering and longing, we were not quite prepared for the intensity of having the dancers bare their souls and sacrifice their bodies right in front of us. Not only do the dancers MOVE, but the piece requires them to emit guttural screams which took us completely by surprise. It connected us to the piece even more deeply, and changed the way we sang the music.

But the effect went both ways. At one point Destan was asking the female soloists if they wanted him to keep things moving tempo-wise in one of the numbers. (He is deftly accompanied by Gary Sieger on guitar.) They responded that some of the movement phrases did not have hard counts, and they would follow his interpretation. It’s a beautiful thing to watch artists working together, feeding off the impulses they bring to the moment. It’s true collaboration; when art is at its most powerful.

Tuesday afternoon we had a brief dress rehearsal in the space, and I tried to keep my cool as we took our places in the pit. The view is awe-inspiring - the massive chandelier that hangs from the ceiling, the red of the walls and seats, the incredible gold proscenium arch…and the SOUND. I won’t soon forget the sound of our voices floating to the uppermost reaches of the hall. It was a dream come true. 

That night the performance went beautifully, and the audience leapt to its feet, with the loudest ovation reserved for Mr. McKayle who was brought downstage for a curtain call. The look on his face as he took in the moment was both placid and euphoric. It was the look of an artist who knows he has created a work of lasting power, that has changed the landscape of his field.

I am so thankful to Michael McElroy for asking me to be a part of this choir, and to Destan for trusting us with this opportunity. Though our run ends with a final performance Saturday evening, we know that our relationship with DCDC is just beginning. 

Remember - Dreams Do Come True!