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FrenetiCore's The Sacred Harp: Stunning But Spotty

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Ten years ago, the modern dance troupe FrenetiCore presented to the world their first full-length performance, and to celebrate their decade of dance, they reimagined this piece in a grand production this past Friday night. The Sacred Harp, which was choreographed by FrenetiCore's Artistic Director, Rebecca French, was presented as a free performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre. The troupe drew quite a crowd, especially given that it was a chilly evening and that their standard audience fills up their (small in comparison) 100-plus-seat theater. It was impressive.

The show focuses on a small Southern town in the early 1900s replete with overtly hyper-religious views and rampant racism. The town's folk are a lively bunch, as illustrated through their fun-loving "hootenanny" style of dance, but when a young white woman and a black male become lovers, racial lines are drawn. The white people of the town find themselves in an angry position where hostility and violence conquers. The black man is killed, leaving his young lover alone and pregnant.

The animosity toward the couple is heightened by divisive religious leaders. One preacher tries to spread the word of peace, while the other comes from a place of intolerance.

In the end, the town finds a sense of peace through a coming together; races blend to overcome hate.

The theatrical performance is told through a mix of ballet, modern and American folk dance mixed with multimedia. A large projection behind the performers displayed forest scenes, illustrations of good and evil and in general helped move the plot along and transition between scenes. The set was minimal; pieces appeared as needed, but the dancers did a fine job of creating their space through movement.

The production was more or less a series of stanzas strung together to create some sort of linear narrative, but it was choppy. Where the show found its strongest moments was in its duets. There were two stunning pieces between the young lovers when they first meet and become entwined. The dancers, Mallory Horn and Denzel Taylor, were quite powerful, in addition to bringing an intimacy to the duet. Taylor is a force to be reckoned with; it was difficult to take your eyes off of him as he moved effortlessly to and fro, which at times hurt Horn. Both of their duets were quietly commanding without knocking you over the head with literalness.

Another duet that was certainly a crowd pleaser was between Carlos Guzman and a bare-chested, suspender-sporting Ruben Trevino as two drunken hillbilly types loafing their way through the forest. This movement was delightfully fun and a pleasure to watch. The dancers' bodies were putty as they ambled their way around the stage attempting to make their appendages cooperate.

In addition to tackling interracial love, The Sacred Harp tackled religion through the eyes of two different preachers. Each preacher had his own "coming out," if you will, through bizarre dubbed "monologues" that were actually the actors speaking along to Dr. Seuss rhymes. The "good" preacher told his congregation about all of the "places they could go," while the "evil" preacher spread the word of intolerance of green eggs and ham. It was an interesting tactic, to use these two somewhat opposing viewpoints to highlight the differences between religious ideologies, but it was more jarring than introspective. If you were not familiar with the work, it would have been completely perplexing, but being knowledgeable didn't help all that much either. It felt misguided.

Approaching the piece from a narrative perspective also highlighted its disjointedness. The interracial couple, who were the crux of the show, were barely present. And the build-up between preachers, which would ultimately lead to the breakdown of color-blind love, was weak, some of which weakness can be attributed to the choice in Dr. Seuss. I did not see the two preachers as "good vs. evil" until they were literally backed by cross and fiery pit of hell, respectively.

While much of the dancing was strong, what stole the show was its soundtrack. The music was a mix of old-timey bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and traditional American folk. I honestly almost pulled out my phone several times to see if Shazam could identify any of the songs because they were so wonderful. If The Sacred Harp put out a soundtrack album on iTunes, I would download it today.

I think this show could really be something. The concept is timeless and still, sadly, relatable. Hatred and intolerance is a constant in our lives, as unfortunate as that may be. But the through-line was thin and needs reworking. I think there are a lot of good things that The Sacred Harp brings to dance theater, and it could be a piece emulated by other companies, with a bit of refinement.

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