Tales by the Sea

By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  September 18, 2007
oreographers to interpret the texts and music, and dancers to bring it to life. The result is an expansive work-in-progress called Newport Stories, which will be presented on September 22 and 23 at the Great Friends Meeting House in Newport.
Boston-based composer Christopher Eastburn has worked with IMC in the past, most recently on Consent to Gravity in 2005. He also directs the Family Folk Chorale, which is an intergenerational chorus. Two years ago, Eastburn was working on a commission for the 300th anniversary of Brookline, Massachusetts.
“I became really interested in the passage of time and the generations of people in one place,” he recalled. “I wondered what might be constant and what might be evolving and what a sense of place and of those people would be like.”
He mentioned this idea to IMC artistic director Miki Ohlsen and executive director Dominique Alfandre and because they and the dance company are so rooted in Newport, they found this idea intriguing. Longtime Newport This Week editor and URI journalism professor John Pantalone was brought on board to come up with some significant Newporters, both past and contemporary.
“I started out focusing on a handful of historical characters and writing first-person narrative takes on Newport,” explained Pantalone. “It has evolved into shorter snippets of stories about people in Newport, from the 18th century up to contemporary times.”
Some of the historical characters are Edith Wharton, who summered in Newport; William Ellery Channing, an early and formative leader among Unitarian theologians in America; George T. Downing, a black restaurateur and businessperson who fought to end segregation in the Newport school system; Isaac Touro, the first rabbi of the Touro Synagogue; George Champlin Mason, a newspaper editor and founder of Newport Hospital; and Maud Howe Elliott (granddaughter of Julia Ward Howe), who lived in Newport and who received, with her two sisters, the first Pulitzer Prize for biography/autobiography for a book about their grandmother.
“I was using these characters to make thematic points about Newport, such as religious tolerance, that have lingered over all this time,” Pantalone noted. “I provided verbal snapshots from different  periods of the city’s history, such as the Kennedys emerging from St. Mary’s Church on their wedding day or a scene from the first Jazz Festival or Dylan plugging his guitar in at the Folk Festival.”
Eastburn came up with poems by Wharton and by once-governor Charles Van Zandt, who wrote a piece titled “Quaker Meeting.” Since the performance will take place in the Quaker Meeting House, and since there are descriptions in the poem appropriate to the men, women, and children in the Family Folk Chorale, 30 of whom will come to Newport, he was thrilled to use that one.
In composing the music for Newport Stories, Eastburn wanted to balance energetic sections with thoughtful ones and to have the variety of genres reflect the plurality of viewpoints in Newport. Thus, for a race between two boats, the music sounds at one moment “like a wild ride” and later “windy chords oscillate and drift past.”
Speaking as one of the two choreographers, Ohlsen stressed that “the dance will not be a mime of the text — we want to glean the essence of it and turn that into movement.

“Chris’s music is very lush and it’s very easy to make dances to such a beautiful melody line and these gorgeous voices,” she continued.
For a double duet that she created, she wanted to show two couples posing the questions asked in a poem titled “Cartographer’s Villanelle”: “Are we in this because of geography? Same place, same time? Or is there something more?”
Other pieces in the show this weekend are Bolger’s Suite Silver, with references to his 20 years with the company; Contain Yourself Darling, a duet by Tami Stronach; duets from Ohlsen’s Outside the Box; and Two as One, a new duet by company member Danielle Genest.
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