Modern meets country in ‘Stand On Your Man’

Shawn McConneloug and Her Orchestra* at the Loring Playhouse

In a small chapel-turned-studio space in south Minneapolis' Center for Performing Arts, eight professional modern dancers practice a new work. Muscled pairs move easily between the Triple Two-step and lariat roping (a fancy way of saying lassoing), while two dancer/singers belt out a sorrowful version of the country and western song, "She Almost Drives Me Crazy."

Local choreographer and Kingfield resident Shawn McConneloug directs the performers' moves and attempts to answer the questions that inevitably spring up regarding the meaning of the dance.

"You could see the horses as trapped chattel contrasting with the cowboys who are symbols of independence," she says of this work funded by the National Dance Project.

Modern dancers. Cowboys. National Dance Project. Lassos. How often do you see this stuff together?

Thoughts of modern dance usually conjure images of abstract shapes and all-black costumes -- not cowboy boots and lassos. But Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra*'s latest work, "Stand On Your Man," playing Friday, April 18-May 4 at the Loring Playhouse, combines these seemingly disparate worlds of movement and experience into one multi-media performance. (The asterisk indicates this is not your conventional orchestra; there are dancers, singers, a pianist, a violinist and others.)

One day, driving down the road, McConneloug -- who grew up listening to jazz -- caught herself belting out the lyrics to country and western (C&W) tunes on the radio.

"I said to myself, 'Oh, my God, I listen to country and western music,'" said McConneloug.

Soon after, she stepped out of the C&W closet.

Now, tattooed and nose-ring-pierced dancers take to the stage in jeans, cowboy boots and hats. They lasso and line dance without breaking a sweat. It all looks like standard country bar fare until they begin wielding their partners' bodies up and around their own -- the original moves overtly imitating the lasso's arch and twirl.

Dancer Arwen Wilder said the troupe underwent serious training for the show, learning to rope and line dance from professionals and using a CD to learn authentic cowboy yodeling. (Yes, there will be yodeling.)

"Shawn is always asking us to do weird things, like learn to play the ukulele, so this cowboy stuff isn't a huge surprise," said Wilder.

Wilder played a mini-ukulele in McConneloug's last work, "Palace of Dreams . . . 21st Century Vaudeville." The dance-based performance melded movement and archival vaudeville films with 1920s music standards. McConneloug often builds around a central theme, usually a film genre, with music, movement and images.

In this C&W-based work, dancers, signers and musicians share the stage as images of cowboy-western performers flicker as the backdrop. Film archivist Bob Deflores drew from his personal collection of rarely seen short films of cowboy-western singers performing their songs -- precursors to music videos, shown as coming attractions and in stand-alone viewing machines before television came to town.

This is not an attempt for the genre-jumping McConneloug to return to her roots.

As a teen, the California native moved to Edina. She described academics as the color on the walls of her home, filled with the sounds of jazz -- including her father's favorites, Benny Goodman and Art Tatum -- and intellectual conversations.

McConneloug worked in film production for years before turning to dance in the 1980s. She took modern classes with and eventually joined Zenon Dance Company. Then she went on a sabbatical in Italy. Although she was teaching classes there, she spent considerable time alone and not necessarily dancing but, as she put it, "learning how to move in my own way, not doing anything that I'd been taught to dance."

Since returning, she's remained committed to performing in her own way. With her non-profit performance company, Shawn McConneloug and her Orchestra*, over the last decade she has gained national recognition and won grants from McKnight Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts and Compas as well as a Bush fellowship.

Living in Kingfield with her husband, Jeune Lune actor Robert Rosen, and their two children, McConneloug spends most mornings choreographing and shaping the artistic end of her performance company.

One of McConneloug's inspirations is Loretta Lynn -- a woman with a very different biography from her own. Lynn grew up in a Kentucky coal-mining family, married when she was 13 and had her first child a year later. After moving with her husband to Washington to find work, she recorded four songs for a small Canadian record label. Less than a year later her "I'm A Honky Tonk Girl" was the most popular song in the country.

Then there's Tammy Wynette, the matriarch of "Stand By Your Man." Wynette grew up in Mississippi -- raised by her grandparents after her father died, and her mother moved to a bigger town to find work. As an adult, Wynette worked as a beautician and sang in local clubs while raising three children. Life didn't get any easier after stardom. Her country singer husband Bob Jones was an abusive drunk. She went on to affairs with Burt Reynolds and Rudy Gatlin, stress-related hospitalizations, the torching of her tour bus and fifteen-bathroom house, and a 1978 kidnapping -- during which she was held at gunpoint, strangled, and beaten severely by her abductor. She's earned her nickname: "The Heroine of Heartache."

McConneloug is drawn to C&W because of its emphasis on the push and pull of relationships, the irony of the lyrics, the poetry of the language and the humor.

"Song titles like 'From the Gutter to You Ain't Up' and 'Seven Beers with the Wrong Kind of Man' resonate with me. And they're so easy to learn the chorus -- all of a sudden you're singing your guts out in the car," she said.

The humorous lyrics allow listeners to address the song's emotional content more easily, she said. Anyone who has ever made a poor choice in a partner or lover can both recall it and laugh about it listening to "Seven Beers with the Wrong Kind of Man."

McConneloug said "Stand On Your Man" looks at gender roles and relationships from a child's perspective. She thinks the humor will "goad" the audience into feeling the isolation, sadness and regret of relationships gone bad -- feelings most try to avoid.

"Humor is the piece that allows people to get close to things that scare them. When you make them laugh, you get them this close (she pulls her palms close together) to feeling that place they don't want to go," said McConneloug.

And feeling is what she's all about.

"My goal is for audiences to feel first, and think later. I just want to pose questions and let the answers be deduced later, if at all," she said.

In such tight times, where the arts are being cut in the private and public sectors alike, McConneloug may have also helped her multi-talented performers develop an additional, commercial skill set. The troupe -- especially dancer/singers Audra Tracy and Peter Rousseau, with their haunting voices -- could all find work in the country music business.

"Stand On Your Man" plays April 18-May 4, Th-Sa. 8 p.m., Su. 7 p.m., at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave. S. $15 Thursdays and Sundays, $20 Fridays and Saturdays, 822-1275. Su., April 20 is a pay-what-you-can performance. Saturday, April 26 is a special $5 matinee for seniors and students.