The Prohibition Era retains its hold on our imagination.
All that illicit activity and defiance of the law back then can still create some very seductive energy.
Latest to succumb is Artifact Dance Project, presenting the full-length “Speak Easy” this weekend in three performances at the University of Arizona’s Stevie Eller Dance Theater.
A cast of 11 dancers and seven musicians take audiences straight to the heart of New York’s hottest nightclubs in the 1920s as seen through the writing of Lois “Lipstick” Long in that brash new publication, the New Yorker.
“Lois was a real person. She was a Vassar graduate and her assignment was to write about the speakeasy culture,” said Ashley Bowman, the show’s choreographer and director. “We didn’t want to tell the story of her life, but what she wrote about.”
Shelly Hawkins, a veteran with the five-year-old company, is dancing the role of Lois Long. The work is structured in three sections, each set in a different nightclub, each based on one of Long’s stories.
“Lively jazz and spirited dance” will be the active ingredients in “Speak Easy,” says Bowman.
“There will be escapades of drinking and dancing by flappers, agents and bootleggers,” promised Claire Hancock, an Artifact co-founder with Ben Nisbet and Bowman.
“We really wanted to create an accurate sound of those times, and wanted to use musicians who weren’t from the classical world,” said Nisbet, the company’s music director and a violinist with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
To that end, local composer/musicians Chris Black and Naim Amor have created an original score that includes a few songs of the period.
“It’s the first time we have collaborated with a composer to develop a show,” said Bowman. “I would tell Chris here’s what the piece is about, and he would write the music. Then I did the choreography.”
To introduce each segment, Hancock will read from the New Yorker piece on which it is based. She is also a principle dancer.
“Speak Easy” opens with tap dancing that becomes the clacking of Long’s typewriter. Her first assignment is covering the tawdry atmosphere at the Old Stand. Her enthusiasm for this work has readers quickly calling her “the ultimate flapper.”
In the second piece, colorful Texas Guinan appears as another flamboyant female making the most of freewheeling New York after dark.
“She was so outrageous,” said Bowman.” She’s like the Kim Kardashian of the 1920s.”
Before you can say “Kick those legs a little higher,” Texas has introduced Long the intrepid nightclub reporter to Duke Ellington and George Gershwin.
The final segment brings in Bee Jackson, whose fame is closely linked to her performances of the Charleston at the Owl club, where there is always a whole lot of dancing going on.
“Everyone is having a great time, just a great time,” Bowman beams. “Then the cops come in.”