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Saturday, October 15, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Theater Review

"Blueprint of a Lady" offers sketchy take on Billie Holiday

Seattle Times theater critic

Perhaps you too read the title "Blueprint of a Lady: The Once & Future Life of Billie Holiday" and assumed this work by veteran jazz singer Nnenna Freelon and noted choreographer Ron Brown and his company Evidence was a biographical dance-theater piece about singer Billie Holiday.

Well, not exactly. Fans of Freelon, who is credited with the show's concept, will be rewarded at Meany with what's mainly a concert by her — garnished by dance.

Sometimes singing with her hard-driving band (Wayne Batchelor on bass, Kinah Boto on drums and percussionist Beverly Botsford), and sometimes with the Evidence dancers working around or with her, the sturdy-voiced Freelon dominates the show.

Her renditions of "God Bless the Child," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and other Holiday standards stick mostly to an angular, percussive, abstracted groove. And there's not much homage to Holiday's more shaded, sculpted, interior way with a song.

According to the program, "Blueprint" is "a multiarts performance piece based on the life and legend of Billie Holiday," but deliberately not biographical "in a linear fashion. The show is further described as a "story that flows like a composition, subtly shifting between the body, the eye, the ear and the heart."

Fine concept. But on its own collagist terms, "Blueprint of a Lady" disappoints. There's little fresh, multidisciplinary reflection here on Holiday's life or art. Compared with some previous full-scale pieces of Brown's, which inventively fuse theme, music and movement, the dance vocabulary is quite limited.

Freelon tends to flatten out the melody of Holiday's standards, issuing many of the tunes at a similar tempo and intensity level. Brown and his terrifically supple, committed company only sporadically unleash their firepower in small bursts of turning, reaching, fleet-footed movement, or in sleek counterpoint to Freelon's vocals.

"Blueprint of a Lady: The Once & Future Life of Billie Holiday," Nnenna Freelon Group and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company, 8 tonight, Meany Theater, University of Washington campus, Seattle; $40 (206-543-4880 or www.meany.org).

High spots are a jaunty, mercurial, silky-limbed male solo to "Now Baby or Never" (a tune co-written by Holiday).

Intriguingly, "Them There Eyes," usually an uptempo tune, gets recast in more sinister terms — perhaps in relation to Holiday's often-destructive relationships with men. As Freelon leans on such lines as "There's danger lurkin' in them there eyes," a procession of several female dancers walks along sharply defined paths of light. (Brenda Gray's lighting design is excellent throughout).

Like somber brides, each carries a lush white flower — a nod to Holiday's love for white gardenias. But the mood breaks, the dancers huddle in lamentation and the idea isn't further explored.

The most narrative piece in "Blueprint" bundles Holiday's classic anti-lynching song, "Strange Fruit," with an anguished poem by Freelon and the song "Willow Weep For Me."

In word and movement, the connection here with the virulent racism Holiday (and so many other black jazz artists) suffered is made quite clear. But as a broader reflection on this great artist's complex life and deeply influential music, "Blueprint of a Lady" is not much of a blueprint.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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