The Washington Post



Bluegrass & Blue Grass
At Wolf Trap, Kentucky in Film, Dance & Music

By Lisa Traiger

August 26, 2002

Kentucky is a hard and beautiful place, a compelling world made all the more intriguing with choreographer Doug Varone, singers Sam Bush and Rebecca Lynn Howard, and a host of dancers and musicians operating as tour guides.

Together they celebrated Kentucky's terrain and the art deeply rooted there in Face of America 2002, a programming series designed to explore the physical landscapes of U.S. national parks and the artistic resonances they produce. Saturday event's show at Wolf Trap was the third of a six-year effort.

As backdrop, high-definition video produced by Blue Land Media showed the vivid and bucolic rolling hills, lush bluegrass pastures, old-growth forests, small farming towns and the spectacular underground caverns of Mammoth Cave National Park. Varone also filmed at the park--a hidden world of jagged stone passageways and smooth bedrock floors--for his world premiere, "The Bottomland," the evening's most humanistic picture of Kentucky life.

The night started, however, with sounds and rhythms stomped out, played on guitar and drummed. The high-spirited group Rhythm in Shoes, with its six-piece bluegrass band, performed traditional flat-footed clogging, a staple of homegrown Appalachian community gartherings. The six cloggers from the Dayton, Ohio-based group (being from Kentucky wasn't required) whisked through swingy couple dances, Irish-influenced step dancing and intricately looping allemandes crisscrossing under partners' arms.

Up-and-coming country singer-songwriter Rebecca Lynn Howard, of Salyersville, KY., performed her powerful, plaintive vocals in the tradition of fellow Kentuckians Loretta Lynn (no relation), the Judds and Patty Loveless. Bluegrass fusion artist Sam Bush's set featured smart and sassy takes on bluegrass, jazz, rock, country, folk, reggae and pop, and his high-octane mandolin and fiddle-playing riffed on Dylan, the Dead, Marley, Zeppelin and just about anyone else who strummed strings in the past quarter-century.

It was New York choreographer Varone, through, who projected a human face on Kentucky's legacy: With emotion-laden choreogrphy, he etched a deeply personal subtext onto the blistered and pocked-rock walls of the caves. Varone embeds his movement with charged gestures and equally electrified moments of stillness.

His "Bottomland" combined filmed and live dance. Varone's seven-member troupe danced onstage as footage of the dancers at Mammoth Cave played on three giant screens. The filmed choreographed sequences caught the weighted meaning of a touch, a rub of a chin, a tap on the chest or a shoulder shrug. Seen on screen or stage, however, these moments emphasized interconnectedness as interchanging pairs, trios and groups joined and separated throughout the nine-part work. A recording of Patty Loveless' achy, heartfelt vocals accompanied the dancers, and Liz Prince's earth-tone shirtwaists, rolled-sleeve shirts and suspenders lent them a timeless quality.

The dancers' pallid faces, pained expressions and lonely beseeching gazes--captured unstintingly by Varone's camera direction--hinted at the hardscrabble lives of many Kentuckians.

But "The Bottomland" goes beyond Kentucky faces to explore the spiritual depths of its people with riveting results. Varone's dancers, live and on screen, evoke the simplicity of Dorothea Lange's spare black-and-white 1930s photographs, which pictured the soulful gazes of destitute migrant workers. Varone's work, too, has captured the spirit and stoicism of generations of Kentuckans wedded to their beautiful and hard land.