It's a Monday afternoon and Durham musician Curtis Eller is sitting in a quiet restaurant booth inside a 9th Street pub. He's describing a personal experience, but happily for everyone involved, it's just a dream.
“So I cover myself in the blood and hide among the bodies, hoping that the cops will think I'm just one of the dead," he said.
While a dream, it is a recurring nightmare Eller has been having since he was a kid.
Sitting next to him, Durham dancer and choreographer Stacy Wolfson explains how Eller's dream wound up informing the structure of the duo's new music-and-dance collaboration, “54 Strange Words,” unfolding this weekend at the renovated Durham warehouse venue The Fruit.
“Well, the beginning of the show is a stage littered with dead bodies,” she says, laughing. “Then he wakes up and grabs a banjo and off we go...."
Ambition and creativity
Eller and Wolfson are collaborative partners and artistic directors of the malleable music-and-dance entity known as The Bipeds, one of the most intriguing and ambitious creative projects to emerge from Durham's perpetually cross-pollinating performing arts scene.
This week's live shows are the culmination of a wide-ranging multimedia collaboration that includes a new record — also called “54 Strange Words,” now available digitally and on CD — plus a pair of music videos directed by local filmmakers Alex Maness and Jim Haverkamp. The videos — more like short films, really — are available online or packaged with the album, which will be available for purchase at the show.
Local music fans may already know Eller from his regular gig with Curtis Eller's American Circus, an essentially unclassifiable musical collective in which Eller leads a rotating gang of musicians through his massive songbook of sideways folk and strange Americana. Eller moved the Circus from New York City to Durham several years ago and regularly tours around the U.S. and Europe with his banjo, plus however many musicians he can afford to bring along.
Wolfson is also a relatively recent Durham transplant. She moved from Chicago in 2013 and has led experimental dance companies in both cities. She's now a busy choreographer and dancer in the Triangle dance scene and operates Bull City Pilates & Massage on 15th Street in Durham.
“I'm technically trained as a modern dancer, and I've danced all my life,” she said. “But since moving to Durham in particular, improvisational dance has been a big part of my practice. There are some really great improv dancers here.”
Wolfson began her artistic collaboration with Eller when she witnessed the high-wattage spectacle of the American Circus.
“I had seen his show a couple of times and realized that he's a mover — he's moving all over the place.” she says, referencing Eller's famously gymnastic performance style.
“I'd really been wanting to work with musicians down here," she said. "I'm into live music. I really don't like recorded music with dance.”
Wolfson proposed a collaboration with her own experimental dance company, and the two began working up material from scratch. The idea: To create a fully integrated music-and-dance company incorporating songwriting, choreography, improvisation and experimentation.
As with their previous shows, Eller and Wolf generated all the material for “54 Strange Words” together – two artists mapping the common ground in their artistic strategies.
“I start playing and she starts dancing and that inspires some kind of lyrical content,” Eller says. “So the songs and the dance are written in the room together, and are more or less inseparable.”
This week's shows will feature Eller and Wolfson leading a cast of eight musicians and dancers in a production that's being hawked as a sepia-tinged psychedelic song-and-dance spectacle. Also appearing onstage, toggling between music and dance, will be local performers William Commander, William Dawson, Joseph Dejarnette, Jack Fleishman, Jessi Knight and Dana Marks.
“54 Strange Words” is designed to be a kind of one-time-only live manifestation of kinetic musical art, with any distinctions between dancer and musician gleefully discarded. Thematically, the new show evolved from a rather Jungian creative impulse – to transpose unconscious concepts and imagery into music and movement.
“We started with dreams and nightmares,” Wolfson says. “And we began the process by writing down our own recurring dreams.”
Eller and Wolfson invited the other musicians and dancers to do the same. They also gathered dream ideas from audiences at a recent production by Durham's Little Green Pig theater company, during an interactive performance where guests were asked to write down their dreams on index cards.
“In the end, we had a full pile of people's dreams, and we turned them into song and movement,” Wolfson says.
Eller sighs: “We stole their dreams.”
The individual songs that emerged from this process don't necessarily have anything in common, Wolfson says. Except that, well, they kind of do. Eller and Wolfson say they were both surprised by the eventual emotional trajectory of the project, which seems to reflect some kind of ambient anxiety in the culture.
“It's quite surreal,” Eller says. “I think there's a sense of impending dread throughout the entire piece that never quite resolves. I took the psychedelic dream imagery as an excuse not to write about the real world. But several people have said the whole piece seems to speak pointedly and directly to the state of the world right now.”
“Yeah, it's kind of dark,” Wolfson said. “But, you know, I feel like dreams are part of people's psyches. They're going to reflect where we're at. This stuff is going to come out. It's got to come out.”
With the Triangle currently hosting the prestigious American Dance Festival, The Bipeds hope that their fellow artists and visiting dance professionals will come out to “54 Strange Words” and sample some local fare. Wolfson and Eller have also developed a series of duets entitled "Hypnagogiacs" which they have showcased in a variety of theaters and festivals in North Carolina, Virginia and New York.
Oh, and The Bipeds would also like to note that this week's shows will feature a 9-foot tall opera-singing skeleton monster. So heads up on that.
What: "The Bipeds: 54 Strange Words"
When: 8 p.m. June 21-23; 6 p.m. June 24
Where: Durham Fruit and Produce Company, 305 S. Dillard St., Durham
Tickets: $15, $10 students and seniors, $5 children