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Pearl Bryan: chapter nine continued

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Pearl Bryan
Secret London
Murder Ballads

Bright Land makes Pearl's ballad the climax of a series of dances, set to traditional and new string-band tunes played live on stage by the Jades. Its chosen themes are the old bluegrass staples of kinship, belief, suffering, tragedy and trancendence. The show premiered in New York in the Summer of 2010 before a San Francisco run this Spring, but I haven't yet had a chance to see it for myself. Kate Weare was kind enough to answer a few of my questions by e-mail, though.
First, I wanted to know if she'd been a bluegrass fan before this particular project came along. "I was raised with California folk music and Chicago blues as well as very traditional English songs from that side of my family," she replied. "When I heard some of the Jades' music, I really made the connection for the first time between the British songs I'd known as a child and the American ones that descend from that lineage.
"All of these songs have a rawness, an earthy humanity, a harshness, a lack of hiding, an intelligence and a beauty that just can't be argued with. They're not everyone's cup of tea, and that's fine, but the power and directness of this music served a cathartic purpose for the communities that created it, and that's the highest power of art in my mind."

'In our version, it's a man killed by a woman. Sometimes it seems like a revenge fantasy.'

Jeff had made a similar point in our own correspondence. "One important piece of the murder ballad is the act of singing in itself," he told me. "Whether it's in the church or on the porch, singing about death and tragedy is a way of getting closer to God, healing, acknowledging shock and pain and suffering. Those were some mighty hard times: the Depression, the Great War, dust bowl migration, major floods, mass poverty. Kind of like today!"
It was precisely these eternal concerns of the music which Kate hoped to translate into dance with Bright Land. But how, I asked, had she approached choreographing Pearl's segment of the show?
"I first heard Pearl Bryan through the Jades," she replied. "In the studio, I began working with it as a purely musical interlude that contained no lyrics. That was on one of the musical takes Jeff gave me to play with. It wasn't until I had already made choreography with this musical interlude that I learned of the story behind the original song, or even heard their version of the original song."
When Jeff and Kate were able to see this piece of choreography in place with the Jades' chorus restored to the music, they were both stunned to see how chillingly appropriate the moves she'd selected were for a story she hadn't then known. "The section itself contains the most brutal and shocking imagery of the whole work," Kate explained. "Strangely enough, the choreography I'd made contained a death. Jeff and I were both kind of amazed at this confluence, I recall."
As this section of the show begins, the Jades are visible on stage, softly playing Pearl Bryan with nothing but the repeated chorus as its lyrics. "They're very still - concentrated and quiet," Kate said of the band. "Only a male and female dancer are left on stage, in the upper left corner of the space, dancing mostly on the ground with very sharp movements that depict desperation and attachment and sexuality. In the end, the woman ends up astride the man, and hammers him square into the ground with these intensely decisive head butts into his chest.
"It's a very sad, shocking and strange moment. The audience usually has a strong reaction to it, sometimes even crying out. It's very hard for some people to take in. Also, this section ends the whole work - summing it up, in a sense."
Dance critics often single this moment out as Bright Land's single most compelling image. "Leslie Kraus rammed her head into Douglas Gillespie's chest, knocking him flat on his back," Rita Felciano wrote in the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "It's a moment one is unlikely to forget." The Financial Times' Apollinaire Scherr agreed. "By the dance's end, Kraus is butting her head into Gillespie's chest, flattening him to the ground like the lid on a coffin," she wrote. "All the while The Crooked Jades sing odes to what they're witnessing." (70, 71)
Like Jeff himself, Kate believes the decision to pare Pearl's ballad down to its chorus alone has made the song stronger than ever. "The Jades' take on Pearl Bryan as we use it in the dance is deeply fascinating to me, because the story is never revealed in full," she told me. "It's abstracted into a kind of disorientated lament, where they sing only: 'Pearl Bryan is dead / Can't find her head'.
"What the audience sees during the Pearl Bryan section bears almost no relationship to the specific story in the song, except for a deep experience of sadness, inexorable violence and the finality of death. In fact, in our version, it's a man who is killed by a woman, and sometimes it seems like a fantasy of revenge to me."
With two such talented custodians as Jeff Kazor and Kate Weare to shepherd her story onwards, Pearl looks set to retain her grip on popular culture for a good while yet. A century after her death, Bright Land has given the girl from Greencastle her head back at last - and this time she's using it as a weapon.

Special thanks to the research staff at Cincinnati Public Library, who were tireless in helping me find all the many, many old newspaper stories I requested.