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When modern dance companies choreograph works set to rock ‘n’ roll music, the composers are usually of the Top 40 ilk: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Prince have provided the tunes for contemporary dance performances by top-name companies. The music has always been canned, and the results have been mixed.
So what the 19-year-old Arlington-based Bowen McCauley Dance company is attempting this weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater is particularly risky: Nine costumed dancers will interpret the music of the 1980s “cowpunk” band Jason and the Scorchers, with the hard-rocking quartet performing the 14-song suite live.
The world premiere of Victory Road is a high-profile chance company founder and choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley is willing to take. “If anybody can do it, Lucy can do it,” Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg says. “She’s a rocker. She goes to clubs, she listens to rock. Sure, she’s artistic in the art-dance world, but she’s a real rocker.”
McCauley has choreographed to live rock music before; nine years ago, the local instrumental band Tone went on tour with the company to Germany. More recently, in 2012, area bands submitted recorded songs for a suite of dance numbers called “Lucy’s Local Playlist,” but none played live at the Terrace Theater during the concerts.
“I feel like I’ve been working this path for a while, and when I saw Jason in concert three years ago at Iota in Arlington, we reached out and got in touch,” McCauley says. The Iota performance was typical Scorchers—fervent, feverish, and unmistakably authentic, “and I was the redhead down front dancing the whole time.”
Ringenberg, a good ol’ country boy whose answering machine says he’s probably out feeding the chickens, was flattered by the offer to choreograph interpretations of his songs by an award-winning D.C.-area dance troupe that trains in ballet and performs at the Kennedy Center. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine anything like this,” he says. “Every time I get exposed to it, it completely floors me.”
A two-song trial last April with Ringenberg and guitarist Warner Hodges at the Terrace Theater convinced them and McCauley that a longer suite of 14 songs, tracing a storyline of the rise and fall and redemption of a wild-living rock band in the 1980s, could energize the creative muscles of both the band and the troupe.
Victory Road, Ringenberg says, is “only inspired” by what really happened to the Scorchers when they met with sudden success with their up-tempo country twist on power-pop and punk. “It’s a journey,” McCauley says. “There’s a reason there’s one song after the other. It’s not like Broadway; there’s no talking among the dancers and the dancers don’t sing. But there is a storyline, a riff on their history.”
The songs are from the Scorchers’ albums of the ‘80s and ‘90s and include their college- and underground-radio hits “Can’t Help Myself,” “Shop It Around,” “White Lies,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and the Dylan cover that broke out the band, “Absolutely Sweet Marie.” “We’re going to rock hard,” Ringenberg promises when reminded of the hard-driving, twang-laden setlist.
McCauley admits that living up to the honesty of the band’s material in a decidedly self-conscious art form like dance is a challenge. “Jason’s songs are so authentic—-even the stage presentation of the band is so real,” she says. “It’s a real person up there, just raw talent singing for the joy of singing, without showmanship for the sake of showmanship. I’m really trying to capture that with my dancers. Yes, it will be impressive dancing, but not just tricks and technique, and it’s not all pretty…I’m digging deep and paying attention to each song.”
“I’ve just been stunned by the whole experience,” Ringenberg says. “And we sure hope this has some legs to it. But if not, you know, we got to play the Kennedy Center with a dance troupe. I can live with that.”
Victory Road shows April 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Tickets are $40 to $45; a post-performance reception on April 11 is $150. See details.