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PERFORMING ARTS

Monday, October 27, 2008

Alan Jackson

Alan Jackson is the least bombastic modern country superstar. So Jackson was just telling it like it is when he told the Patriot Center audience on Saturday that he's had so many hits that "I can't name 'em." But then he tried to play 'em -- all of 'em. Or at least parts of all of 'em.

Jackson, who turned 50 this month, really has written and/or sung dozens of No. 1 hits over the last two decades, and he didn't want to send anybody home without hearing a personal favorite. He tried to please everybody by delivering abridged versions of many of his smashes. Among the nuggets that Jackson and his grand big band, the Strayhorns, gave the medley treatment to: "It Must Be Love," "Here in the Real World," "Who's Cheatin' Who?"

Good intentions aside, the tactic came with a cost. Jackson, for example, dropped the best verse (the one with the "don't sound much different than Dylan" line) of "Gone Country." And the romantic ballads, including "When Somebody Loves You," and his cover of Rodney Crowell's "Song for the Life," lost their emotional power when given short shrift.

The show's best moments came during songs that were delivered whole. His tributes to father-son relationships, "Drive," and "Small Town Southern Man" (the latter off his latest CD, "Good Time"), were as touching as pop country gets. Jackson gave his fabulously warm and fuzzy "Remember When" a reading that was just as long as fans remembered it, so one couple had enough time to get up in the aisle and slow-dance around the arena floor.

The concert was part of a gala sponsored by the American Freedom Foundation, a military-themed organization. The crowd was particularly into "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," Jackson's 9/11-inspired ballad about a guy who isn't sure he could "tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran." Some would say that's a worldview that has caused the United States some problems in the years since the attacks. But, again, Jackson was just telling it like it is.

-- Dave McKenna

Dancenow Productions

Forget plastic tombstones and candy corn: For a less cliched dose of Halloween spirit, how about choreography performed on a Ouija board?

Laura Schandelmeier and Stephen Clapp of Dancenow Productions conjure up such an entertainment in "Haunted," an intriguingly spooky movement-theater piece that twitches and skates -- like a bedeviled planchette -- across a black floor painted with numbers and letters. The hour-long work, which muses in part on the documented local incident that reportedly inspired "The Exorcist," had a three-performance run over the weekend at Joe's Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier; it will encore at midnight on Oct. 31 and at 8 p.m. on All Saints' Day (Nov. 1).

Schandelmeier and Clapp created "Haunted" in concert with R.I.S.E., a musical ensemble, and Ghanaian percussionist and storyteller Kofi Dennis, who performs onstage in the show's glowing, fog-misted light. As Dennis wields drums and rattles, supplementing R.I.S.E.'s eerie recorded soundscape -- chanting, hypnotic piano riffs, poltergeist-like squeaking and hissing -- Schandelmeier and Clapp spasm, freeze and knit themselves together in movements suggesting entrapment and spiritual frenzy. Sometimes they grab at each other, or wrestle, or entwine in supported handstands, their gold-black tunics and leggings fluttering; sometimes they reverently match palms or move their hands in sync, as if invoking a spell. Sometimes Dennis joins the physicality, whirling in mystic fervor, his white garments flaring around him.

Anchoring the colorful kinetics to history, the "Haunted" soundtrack includes an echoing recitation (read by Michael Kramer) of a 1949 Washington Post article about an exorcism that, some averred, purged a Mount Rainier boy of diabolic possession (an event mined by the novel "The Exorcist"). Less persuasive is another spoken-word section, in which Dennis cites a recent local child abuse case; this sequence seems a forced bid for topicality, interrupting "Haunted's" enjoyably spectral tone.

-- Celia Wren

Alexandre Tharaud

Alexandre Tharaud's Friday night recital filled the auditorium of the House of France D.C., as La Maison Française now wants to be known. Since his 2005 debut at the Kennedy Center, the French pianist has developed quite a following in Washington, including Roland Celette, the French cultural attache.

Tharaud performed two signature works from his critically acclaimed discography, beginning with Ravel's "Miroirs." Tharaud's pianism, while formidable, is not unassailable, as a few minor slips toward the end of "Une Barque sur l'Océan" showed. Rather, it was the thoughtfulness of his playing and the careful creation of vivid soundscapes that impressed, like the quicksilver fluttering of "Noctuelles," the rainbow plumage of the "Oiseaux Tristes" and the sere, guitar-like serenade of "L'Alborada del Gracioso."

Chopin's op. 28 Preludes followed, a work Tharaud has described as "shot through with violence and death." Even in the most serene movements, a restless fear loomed, bursting out in a deathly shudder in No. 14, booming pedal-point sforzandos in No. 17, and the hollow wallop of the three final notes of No. 24, a low D that resonated like a slammed sarcophagus lid. At its best, Tharaud's performance captured the chimerical nature of this set of 24 pieces, preludes to nothing, mostly miniatures that dissolve like spun sugar a moment after tasting.

Two baroque encores, the gentle Adagio from Bach's D Minor Concerto (BWV 974), adapted from an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello) and the percussive "Tic-Toc-Choc" from Couperin's 18th Ordre, again demonstrated the link between later French composers and their 18th-century forebears.

-- Charles T. Downey

Fall Festival of Indian Arts

What a huge difference between a good dancer and a true artist. And how patently clear and exhilarating that was when guest Bharatanatyam artist Shanta Dhananjayan took the stage Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre for the fifth annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts.

She is lit from within, downright penurious when it comes to economy of movement, and an actress of great nuance. She tosses off complex rhythmic passages with ease. Like a great musician, she conceives of each and every phrase (in her case, movement, music and story) in terms of what has led up to it and where it is going. Seeing her perform is revelatory, like experiencing a jumble of words suddenly transform into crystal-clear sentences.

Now in her 60s, she and her husband, V.P. Dhananjayan, are on their last tour. How special it was, then, that local audiences were privy to what may be one her last public performances in the United States. Congratulations to festival director Daniel Singh for arranging it.

The evening was extremely long, running for over three hours. In addition to the Dhananjayans' "Bhakti-Maargam (Path of Devotion)," Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company performed an entire program of pretty creditable Bharatanatyam plus some still heavy-handed attempts at blending this genre with modern dance. Singh's company has a long way to go to be a top local company like CityDance Ensemble, but it also has come a long way over the years and deserves credit for making the most of a large and growing pool of locally trained Indian classical dancers.

On Sunday, the festival presented well-known Indian dancer and performance artist Mallika Sarabhai.

-- Pamela Squires

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