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Modern dance surrounds Ravenna Woods

Raucous Jackals

Ravenna Woods will provide the soundtrack for live modern dance by MLK Ballet and the Barefoot Collective. Photo courtesy of ravennawoodsblog.com

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When I first saw Ravenna Woods, it was in Austin, Texas, 2011, at a showcase that included the Pacific Northwest likes of the Nightgowns and the Tea Cozies. Unlike those bands, Ravenna Woods were built in the mold of Washington's growing obsession with folk music. However, unlike the infestation of folk, Ravenna Woods concerned themselves with a frenzied clatter that differentiated themselves from the likes of the Fleet Foxes and every other band that treated gentile folk as a way of starting indie rock from square one.

Since that time, Ravenna Woods have grown in ways that enter them into a different realm from those that consider folk revivalism the be-all and end-all of new indie expression. What began as a three-piece that created percussive folk has now involved more electronic elements that expand their sound. Now, with their newest album, The Jackals, Ravenna Woods will be subjected to a modern dance interpretation of their album, just as Lemolo did last year with the Kaleidoscope Dance.

Just as last year's performance involved a band and their album in its entirety, accompanied by modern dancers, so will this year's production involve Ravenna Woods' latest album, The Jackals, joined with interpretive dancers.

Whereas the Kaleidoscope Dance was a joint production between the MLK Ballet and the Barefoot Collective, this year's show is the result of one choreographer and his troupe of dancers. The Warehouse production company made the move to stage another show where music and modern dance unite. I spoke with the show's sole choreographer, Joel Myers, about the process of taking an entire album and interpreting it into a cohesive show.

"I got really excited, because there's a connection," says Myers. "Ravenna Woods' lead singer, Chris Cunningham, his uncle is Merce Cunningham, the famous modern dancer and choreographer. ... I didn't know Ravenna Woods particularly well, when I started the project. I had heard one or two songs, and had certainly not heard The Jackals. ... As soon as I listened to the album, I got really excited."

The Jackals is an album that takes its inspiration from Cunningham's time in Kenya. While it doesn't quite function as a concept album, there is still a tonal through-line that carries The Jackals. The scrappy three-piece I saw in Austin doesn't exist anymore. What remains is a band that has grown, not only in numbers, but in ambition. The raucous folk-rock remains, but it comes wrapped in layers of electronica and deeper observations.

Accompanying a band playing its album in its entirety is a novel idea that comes with some problems, if you're one of the dancers. Is there a limit to interpreting another band's album? How much is too much? When do you go off on your own and take that album for a ride?

"One of the things I tried to not do was to try too hard to portray the story that (Ravenna Woods) was telling," says Myers. "I think there's two narratives going on - the one he's created, the one I've created - and there's an infinite number of narratives and arcs that an audience can feel that can have everything to do with either one of our narratives or neither. ... A lot of audiences with fine art performances like dance feel pressure to ‘get' what they're supposed to ‘get' from it. ... You don't have to get anything from it. You can find it fun to watch people jump up and down, or to watch the costumes change, or to close your eyes and listen to the music and hear feet slapping on the stage."

For as much as this seems like a big production, this eventually comes down to the most elemental of entertainments: Ravenna Woods will take those acoustic guitars to task, and Joel Myers will task his dancers to mold that music.

RAVENNA WOODS, 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 7, Urban Grace Church, 902 Market St., Tacoma, $10-$30, 253.272.2184

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