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Dancing With Fire and Brimstone

Choreographer Kelli Brown soapboxes about cigarettes and sermons

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Kelli Brown is more than gracious when I show up 20 minutes late for our scheduled 40-minute chat. Generous indeed, considering the massive restraints on her time these days. In addition to being an adjunct instructor of dance at both Boise State and the College of Idaho, she is a budding photographer and filmmaker, and recently premiered her first dance film Street Smart at Balance Dance Company's Spring Concert Balance Above. But the current time-suck on her schedule is the preparations for New and Improved, her MFA concert to earn a degree in dance performance from the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. As I pull out my tape recorder, she's already started, energetically drawing me through an oral history of women revivalists, exploitative advertising and musings on the future of technology in the arts.

It's the ideas that seem to dictate Brown's work, rather than the aesthetics of the movement. Drawing from archived sermons and cigarette ads from the '50s, she's created an antiqued landscape in which to play out her thoughts on feminism and spirituality throughout the 1900s. Brothers and Sisters, a piece previously workshopped at Boise State's spring student dance concert, features sound clips from Aimee Semple McPherson, a charismatic evangelist in the '20s and '30s, who allegedly faked her own kidnapping to tryst with a lover in Mexico. The work plays out in four acts, the movements ranging from fervent hand-wringing of penitent congregationalists to a tender, yet shy duet between the character of McPherson, danced by Savannah Sanderson, and Ben Davis as her extramarital Romeo.

Also on the bill is the concert's title piece New and Improved, a quirky and energetic slice of mid-century nostalgia that both slyly lampoons and lambasts the use of feminine sex appeal in advertising. Staged as a cross between a flirty chair dance involving rolling stools and cigarette girl fantasy, the work can be viewed either as a health caution or as a protest piece responding to an inappropriate early advertising trend. The issue of appealing to men by the use of female "charms" is one of Brown's hot points.

"Even though these pieces are kind of 'retro-y,'" says Kelli, crooking her fingers in a quote sign, "I think they both have relevance to advertising and women today, to religion and how women are treated today."

One look at her dance company demonstrates Brown's belief that there is no "ideal" when it comes to beauty. While certain styles of dance require a specific body type, Brown maintains that everyone has a right to be expressive.

"There's some great dancers that look different," she says. Her dancers range in age from 18 to 56, with every type of background among them, from former circus performers to ballet-loving "bunheads" to debuting dancers who were roped in by a friend of a friend.

Having danced and taught in the Boise community for much of her career has allowed Brown to draw company members from many sources. It's especially exciting to watch Teresa Vaughan—one of Brown's early dance teachers, who's still an arresting performer—and to see on stage how dance is passed on from teacher to student. Providing dancers with opportunities to perform is a key part of Brown's mission.

"There's a need for people to have a place to perform," she says. "And there's a lot of wonderful dancers in Boise."

While the experience of those on stage may vary by as much as 40 years, the enthusiasm displayed by all the performers is the uniting force that makes Brown's choreography a success. Marla Hansen, artistic director of Idaho Dance Theatre and one of Brown's thesis mentors, respects Brown's commitment to opening the stage to new dancers.

"She is very good at creating humor and working with dancers of very diverse technique levels," says Hansen. "One of her strengths is that she can work with that variety and create something that's fun to watch and interesting choreographically."

Rounding out the evening will be Duende, a flamenco-inspired quartet, and SWF, a series of solos based on personal ads placed in major metropolitan newspapers, complemented by a spoken-word performance from Janelle Wilson.

New and Improved, Friday, May 23, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 24, 2 p.m, 7:30 p.m. Morrison Center. Stage II. $10 adults, $5 students. For more information e-mail DanceIdaho@juno.com.

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