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Vanaver Caravan

Dancing for Woody

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“I want you to put everything into it, so it sounds clean and together and sharp,” says Amy Fenton-Shine to a group of eight teenage dancers in Stone Ridge. Outside it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, but the teens are focused on what’s happening in the studio. Fenton-Shine is a long-time performer with the Vanaver Caravan. She specializes in clogging, an American folk dancing style rooted in Appalachian immigrant cultures that has similarities with American tap and Irish step dancing. As Fenton-Shine demonstrates, clogging has as much to do with being heard as being seen. With the help of Vanaver Caravan professional dancer Rachel Prince, she’s teaching the students to put the beat into the steps and to mark time in the music.

These students will be performing with the Vanaver Caravan’s professional dancers in “Pastures of Plenty: Woody Guthrie in Dance and Music.” The tribute to folk singer Guthrie has won rave reviews, most notably from the New York Times dance critic Alastair Macauley. Hudson Valley audiences can see the show on November 3 at the SUNY New Paltz’s Parker Theater.

The young dancers in the studio work on steps with names like “crab crawl,” “Indian,” and “shuffle step.” They stand shoulder to shoulder in a line and keep their arms at their sides while practicing their footwork. They work practice “scuffs” and “chugs” while Vanaver Caravan Music Director Bill Vanaver accompanies on banjo. He gets up occasionally to give a few pointers and to help a dancer having trouble with his high knee kick.

This year marks the centennial of Guthrie’s birth, and it is a fine time to revisit the musician who created songs such as “This Land Is Our Land” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in this World Anymore.” Guthrie is a natural touchstone for Bill Vanaver, who started his own music career at 15. “I was a folk singer touring by myself, singing traditional songs.” Guthrie, says Vanaver, “was part of my background with folk music. He’s kind of the grandfather of American singer-songwriters.”

The other Vanaver in the Caravan is Livia Vanaver, the company’s principal choreographer. She and Bill Vanaver met at a Balkan dance festival over 40 years ago. They founded the Vanaver Caravan in 1972, and have been doing world music and dance together ever since. Their organization has an arts education program that teaches world folk dances to school children. They also offer classes in Stone Ridge and New Paltz.

“Pastures of Plenty” features modern dance and partnering, in addition to the clogging numbers. Bill Vanaver’s arrangements of Guthrie songs range in style from mariachi to bluegrass, and will be performed live. The show demonstrates what a wealth of inspiration can be drawn from Guthrie’s art, and the happy marriage of good music and dance. Literally. Guthrie met his second wife, Marjorie Mazia, at a dance rehearsal in 1942, around the time modern dance choreographer Sophie Maslow was creating a suite of dances to songs recorded by Guthrie. The dance work was titled Folksay. One day Maslow heard Guthrie was available, and she invited him to come to rehearsal and sing for the dancers. There was one problem: Guthrie wasn’t used to singing a song the same way twice. In order to keep the musician and the dancers on the same page, Mazia wrote out cue cards for Guthrie. Decades later, it was Mazia and Guthrie’s daughter, Nora Guthrie, who commissioned “Pastures of Plenty.” Says Bill Vanaver, “Modern dance to Woody Guthrie—we’re kind of coming full circle.”

The November 3 performance of “Pastures of Plenty: Woody Guthrie in Dance and Music” is produced by Unison Arts. The show starts at 7:30pm at SUNY New Paltz's Parker Theater. Tickets are $15 for students and children, $20 for Unison Arts members, and $25 for nonmembers reserved in advance, $2 more at the door. Tickets may be purchased online at Unisonarts.org.

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