'Butterfly' soars, sputters

The Lied Center was only half full for Saturday's performance of "Brown Butterfly," and while I'd like to think it was the gorgeous weather that kept the crowds away, more likely the reason is that people were put off by one of the center's most adventurous productions of the year.

"Brown Butterfly" is a 75-minute performance, conceived, composed, choreographed and directed by Craig Harris and Marlies Yearby. What makes it special is the way Harris, Yearby and video mixer Jonas Goldstein combine jazz, African rhythms and interpretive dance into a piece of performance art inspired by the life of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

The show began with a low, bass drone from the keyboards, while three separate onstage screens showed the same fierce shot of Ali's eye. Slowly, more and more instruments came into the mix, including a pair of drums, keyboards, bass and brass.

The brass section and one drum set delivered jazz riffs, while the second drum set added contrast with African-influenced rhythms.

As the seven musicians played, they were joined by a troupe of six first-rate dancers.

The video screens began displaying images from Ali's life and times.

The choreography clearly emulated Ali's boxing philosophy of "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." The dancers fluttered across the stage, occasionally delivering quick, ferocious blows to unseen opponents, Ali-style. The dancing was offset not only by music but also by the video screens onstage, which often contrasted the jubilation of the dancers with harsh images of war and the civil rights movement. The sound system often looped Ali's words over the dancing and music.

Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of downtime. When the dancers left stage to catch their breath, the musicians took over with extended jazz solos, while the screens flashed occasional images to the audience.

But "Brown Butterfly" soared when music, dance, images and sound were all used at once. Between the constantly changing audio and video, the dancing and the music, it was hard to know where to focus your attention. Moments like those, when all the artists collaborated and fed off each other, helped the performance rise high and compensated for some of its lesser moments.

-- Aaron Passman is a Kansas University journalism student.


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