The voice of Bruce Springsteen wails “Countin’ On a Miracle” as dancers surround a “corpse” laid out on a table. They drape a shirt around the naked torso as a youth dons a military uniform and begins to march, inexorably, off to war.
The scene is from Anytown: Stories of America, a dance-theater work that integrates more of Bruce Springsteen’s music than the star has authorized for any other theater production. Created and directed by locals Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith (of Shapiro & Smith Dance), the show returns to the Southern Theater in Minneapolis this month after two years of ovations on a national tour. “People came up to the dancers with tears in their eyes, saying things like, ‘you were telling my story,’ ” recounts Smith.
A tale of three working-class families, Anytown depicts the hardscrabble grit, spit, and resilience that hold ordinary folks together through the daily grind of making ends meet. “Anytown invades your heart, and some moments almost stop it,” gushed New York’s Village Voice. And the backstory is even more compelling. What began as a fairy tale became a saga of grace under pressure when Shapiro, now 48, was diagnosed with cancer.
Flash back to Chelsea of the mid-1980s, then a bohemian enclave of New York City. Shapiro and Smith had just left established modern dance companies to break out on their own. These were days of spontaneity and unbridled creativity, and in one such moment Smith’s sister Soozie Tyrell and her friend Patti Scialfa dropped in at Smith’s loft. “They were playing music on the streets; we were starting to make up dances. They played, we danced, and everything clicked,” says Shapiro. Bonds were formed, but soon all four moved on. Shapiro and Smith gained a national reputation for dance-theater characterized by scrappy wit and vigorous physical and emotional heft. Tyrell and Scialfa joined Springsteen’s E Street Band.
In 1995, Shapiro and Smith relocated their company to Minneapolis and were commissioned by renowned troupes, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York and Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the couple truly reconnected with Tyrell, spending time with her and Scialfa (by then married to the Boss) on Springsteen’s New Jersey farm. There, the seeds for Anytown were sown. “Bruce and Patti were enthusiastic,” says Tyrell. “We all got excited about getting into this artist-community-vibe project.”
Upon returning home, Shapiro learned that he had metastatic prostate cancer. “Joanie’s and my dances have always started with exploring who we are,” says Shapiro. “So we started with where we were, emotionally, at that point.”
As Shapiro struggled with chemotherapy, longtime company members such as Laura Selle literally threw themselves into the physically and emotionally risky dances Shapiro and Smith were creating. “We bled for it,” says Selle, who performs a wildly tormented solo to Tyrell’s song “White Lines.” When Tyrell saw a preview in New Jersey, she was blown away. “Patti and I were holding hands, with goose bumps running up and down,” says Tyrell. “We’d never really seen our music.”
Over the last two years, Anytown has evolved into a full-scale folk opera connecting the funky roots of Springsteen’s music to that quintessentially American art form, modern dance. “The performers have dug in and ripped its seams apart,” says Smith. “They’ve gotten wilder, braver, sexier, bolder.”
For Selle, the show is wrapped up in the idea of family. “You don’t always feel like you’re performing,” she says. “Just living it with the people you love.”
Danial Shapiro died on October 3, 2006, as this issue went to press. Anytown: Stories of America will still be performed November 9 to 12 at the Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Mpls. For tickets, call 612-340-1725.