Kool Kat of the Week: Happy Days, Unhappy Days, Gathering Wild’s Jerylann Warner Has a Burning Question About the 1950s and She Is Answering It with Dance

Posted on: Jan 22nd, 2014 By:

Jerylann Warner goes back to CIRCA 50. Photo credit: Bubba Carr.

The Gathering Wild Dance Company is transporting audiences back to CIRCA 50 this weekend Jan 24 and 25 at the 14th Street Playhouse, but their interpretation of the era of HAPPY DAYS isn’t just sock-hops, poodle skirts and perfectly trimmed lawns. Under the cheoreographic guidance of Art Director Jerylann Warner, the 14-member ensemble will “shine a light on oppressed emotions seething below the surface,” including race, censorship, the role of women in a patriarchal world and living the American Dream consumed by consumerism.

If those themes sounds heavy, Jerylann promises they are tackled with plenty of empathy, as well as a joyous soundtrack which includes classics from the decade that gave birth to rock n roll. ATLRetro decided to make Jerylann Kool Kat of the Week to find out more about one of Atlanta’s most innovative dance companies and their unique take on the 1950s.

ATLRetro: What inspired you to explore the 1950s through dance? Is there a personal connection, a personal fascination?

Jerylann Warner: I was inspired to create something that came from a memory. I was born in the ‘50s, all be it later in the decade, but I recall with reverence how people gathered in the streets at sunset in the summer, how radios and fireflies and Catholic widows exchanged laughter and food. But that is not in and of itself compelling enough, it has been a burning question for me: who would I have been in the midst of civil rights? Would I have stood up for what was in my heart? What would have been in my heart? What if I lived in the south, or if I was a young mother or if I was like so many women, dependent on a spouse??? I want to know if what I feel with such stinging clarity now would have surfaced for me then? I am intrigued by the sacrifices that protest entails, and I am so deeply in love with being human.

This isn’t just about 50s pop culture and the birth of rock n roll, though. You’re going underneath the outer veneer of the ‘50s as an idyllic American time. Can you talk about that why you decided an American housewife should be the narrator?

The housewife wears a beautiful red dress, and her role has been created by actress Amber Bradshaw, who joined me as a creator several months into the process. My first thought was “Ah she is the circulatory system.” Amber later helped clarify the housewife as a narrator, serving as a lens for the audience to see into the aspects of the decade that we have embraced. I can relate to her archetype. She was a natural for me to adapt into the dynamics of conformity and sexism.

The ‘50s was a key time in the history of jazz, an American art form enjoyed by whites but for which many of the most innovative composers and performers were black. Can you tell us a little bit about the segment, “Peace Piece,” which is inspired by music with the same name by jazz legend Bill Evans and his trio.

I was entirely blessed to have studied vernacular jazz dance and rhythm tap with Brenda Bufalino. This makes me no stranger to the force of jazz, the complexity and brilliance of improvisation. I choose “Pierce Piece,” a seminal improvised piano solo because it is beautiful and because I adore it and because jazz is a diffusing racial alchemy.It is a universal collective of voices and responses.

Amber Bradshaw narrates Circa 50 by Gathering Wild dance company. Photo credit: Bubba Carr.

What are some of the 50s classic songs you decided to include and why?

It is fair to give you this synopsis. Chuck Berry was urged to do better and invented the alter ego Johnny B. Goode; he lived on Goode Street. Johnny Cash was a poet for the striving. Pasty Cline aroused everyone, and that was okay. Elvis was a very complex man and truly an original. I will refer to him often. Anytime I sense reluctance of expression in my students. Do not edit yourself, not yet. That’s what I say.

Circa 50 features some original musical pieces, too. I’m particularly intrigued by the innovative kitchen soundtrack in the Print Ads scene.

The original score is played live by the amazing Colin Agnew. He will play domestic appliances and kitchen utensils. I am sure I do not have to tell you why.

How about the segment around Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight?” 

Thanks to my dad Joe, Frank Sinatra is my wheel house. I made this duet for two women. We have so much more work to do in our ongoing civil rights movement. Frank’s romantic overtures belong to every couple.

Gathering Wild dancers in CIRCA 50. Photo credit: Bubba Carr.

Do you use any ’50s movie imagery or icons, i.e. Marilyn Monroe or James Dean? If no, why not? 

I have not floated imagery in of James Dean or of Marilyn. Instead I have gravitated toward the iconic musicians in my interpretation of their impact, the way the music makes me feel, and in research I conducted.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell ATLRetro readers about CIRCA 50 or Gathering Wild dance company?

Gathering Wild is known for its way of motioning audiences to look at things, like a gentle tap tap, hey, look at this, look at this marvelous, beautiful aspect of life [or] look at this bravado, this influence, this delightful presence that is real and powerful and of our creation. And particular to Circa 50, look at this suffering and triumph.

What’s next for you and Gathering Wild?

Next for Gathering Wild is a theme-free show. They are so very compelling, but I am ready to work with my beautiful, talented dancers in a very “other” kind of way. Just us, just us in the studio sourcing movement and building an arch, a passage, a tunnel to the deeper feelings of why we love to dance.

Tickets on sale through the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office.

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