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The original debut date of Bowen McCauley Dance’s newest performance, Telemetry and Other New Dance Works, was thwarted by the darkest of forces. Due to a noise leak between the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, where the modern ballet was to take place, and Eisenhower Theater, where James Earl Jones recently led the cast of On Golden Pond, the dance company and its accompanying eight-piece band, Tone, were asked to reschedule for Nov. 3.
“It’s OK, though, because it’s Darth Vader who’s telling us to turn it down,” jokes 37-year-old Norm Veenstra, guitarist and co-founder of instrumental ensemble and Dischord Records mainstay Tone.
One might wonder how much noise a modern ballet could possibly make. But the members of Tone aren’t your average orchestra-pit rats, and their five guitars are as dense and muscular as a ballerina’s thighs.
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“I’ve always liked different kinds of music,” says Lucy Bowen McCauley, the 40-ish artistic director and choreographer for Bowen McCauley Dance. “I’ve used the music of Camper Van Beethoven and the Cramps…in addition to Brahms and Bach.”
When her husband, Bowen McCauley general director John McCauley, heard an interview with Tone on WETA-FM, he realized he’d stumbled upon something unique.
“[John and I] went to Iota to see them [play], and I really liked them,” says Bowen McCauley. “I thought I could string together some of their songs.” She met with the group after the show, and a partnership took off quickly.
As it turns out, she found more-than-kindred spirits in Tone. The musicians have even been amenable to tweaking their songs to fit Bowen McCauley’s vision. The title song, “Telemetry,” features a driving pulse—an A note played over and over—and was originally less than three minutes long. Bowen McCauley asked Tone to double the length in order to illustrate her narrative about surviving a heart attack. Though the original song’s back story is much more simple—“I just liked the word ‘telemetry,’ and I liked the note A,” laughs guitarist and songwriter Geordie Grindle—the new arrangement, according to Grindle, is “more full of life.”
“It’s a challenge for us because it’s like, ‘No, that’s the way the song’s written!’” says Veenstra. “But we’ve taken ourselves out of our own skin and tried to not [look at it] that way.”
A true collaboration, Telemetry is as informed by Tone’s music as it is by Bowen McCauley’s choreography. “[Tone isn’t] just background,” says Bowen McCauley dancer Indre Vengris. “They’re performing with us. It’s a very different sensation, feeling their energy.”
Veenstra is happy to see the lines of performance blurred. “Typically, music and arts have had these kinds of boundaries over the years that shouldn’t really apply anymore,” he says. “We’re a reasonably tight, structured band in our normal situation anyway….I don’t think we’re necessarily starting from as much of a gap as a different kind of band might be….Ninety-five percent of our material has counts to it.”
Tone’s relentless regularity is due in large part to the band’s dual drummers: Andy Myers recently joined co-founder Gregory Hudson behind the tubs. According to Myers, a second percussionist adds “a certain sort of dynamic range”—certainly an understatement to Kennedy Center officials who feared vibrating seats at On Golden Pond.
Loudness be damned, if Telemetry is a success, Bowen McCauley and Tone will consider creating something together from scratch next year.
“I can’t think of anything more inspiring than hearing someone say, ‘I want to choreograph a ballet to [your music],’” says Grindle. “It still blows our minds.”—Anne Marson