One of the mid-Hudson’s perennial cultural treasures, the Vanaver Caravan troupe of musicians, dancers and educators, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this spring. Considering that I had the pleasure of first meeting Bill Vanaver and Livia Drapkin Vanaver very soon after they settled in Rosendale circa 1975, that milestone makes this author feel very old indeed. But in spite of Bill’s brush with mortality when he needed cardiac surgery in 2006, this dynamic, relentlessly creative couple doesn’t show any signs of contemplating retirement. As usual, they’ve got so many projects on their plates that it’s tough to steal a few minutes for an interview.
“We do have moments of rest and breathing; this just isn’t one of them,” Liv told me on her cell phone from a doctor’s waiting room, where she was escorting a friend who needed oral surgery. Just in the past few months the Caravan has visited India and Sweden and conducted a workshop at Albany’s popular annual Dance Flurry weekend. Next month they have some gigs on Long Island and will then take Pastures of Plenty, their show of Woody Guthrie songs accompanied by clog dancing, on a big tour.
Oh, and then there’s this little matter of the Vanaver Caravan 40th anniversary concert with the Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP) coming up on March 31 at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) in Kingston. This is a big deal, and not just because it’s commemorating the group’s amazing longevity: The HVP will be premiering not one, but two new symphonic works composed by Bill Vanaver himself, with accompanying choreography by Livia.
It’s not the first time that Bill and the Philharmonic have worked together. The orchestra premiered an earlier classical composition of his in 1996: P’nai El, which was based on the Biblical legend of Jacob wrestling with the angel. Folkloric inspiration also underlies the two new pieces commissioned by the HVP to be unveiled on March 31, according to Livia. “Both are traditional tales, and also mystical – both tales of the supernatural.” Polly Vaughn is based on an Appalachian variant of a tragic ballad from the British Isles in which a young hunter accidentally kills his white-clad sweetheart, mistaking her for a swan. In a panic that he will be accused of murder, he contemplates fleeing; but his lover’s ghost appears to him and persuades him to stay and be tried.
In the Appalachian version the young man is ultimately acquitted, but not every regional variant has the same outcome. In some, there is even a suggestion that the young woman is a shaman or shapeshifter who actually had taken the form of a swan at the time of the killing, echoing ancient fairy tales like The Wild Swans and more recent artworks like the ballet Swan Lake. Bill Vanaver’s interpretation “leaves it up to the audience,” said Liv. “Bill spent two months listening to about 25 versions, with lyrics borrowed from many different ones that he researched and set to a melody that he composed himself.” A singer from the South named Molly Andrews will be the vocal soloist for the piece, fronting the Vassar Choir – and yes, there will be Appalachian clog dancing, a longtime Caravan specialty.
The other symphonic work, Earth Shall Have Its Own, is an extended version of a dance piece created by the troupe way back in 1978/79, based on a folktale from the Caucasus. It concerns a boy growing up without a father who goes in quest of a land where there is no death. On the way he finds mentors in the forms of a falcon, a stag and Beauty, who is “the same today as she was the first day of Creation.” Beauty gives the youth three apples and sends him on his way. But when he finds his way back to his home, he discovers – like so many who have visited the realm of Faerie in legends from many lands – that a thousand years have passed since he set out, and that everyone he had known is long dead.
Among the guest performers who will be joining the Caravan for the premiere will be a young dancer from the former Soviet state of Georgia, where the tale originated, in the lead rôle of the youth. “He’s what I always envisioned when I made the piece,” Livia said. “When I went into the first rehearsal with him, he said, ‘Oh, I know that story.’” The piece will also have a narrator: a Caravan alumna and longtime New Paltz resident who is now an associate professor of Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota, Lisa Channer. It was Channer’s mother Eileen, longtime assistant to the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts at SUNY-New Paltz, who first got the Vanavers settled in Ulster County all those years ago, so this performance will be a real homecoming and closing of a very big circle.
This gala event has been long in the making, with the Philharmonic first approaching Bill with the idea of commissioning a new orchestral piece two years ago. “It was a real honor for Bill to be invited to compose another symphonic work for the HVP,” said Livia. “And we’ve had a long relationship with the Bardavon, since we first did a benefit for them in 1979. We did a lot of collaborations with them in the ‘90s, with six productions in one year including one of the first versions of the Poughkeepsie Festival of Light. But we haven’t done one in a while.” In fact, the very first concert at UPAC after it merged with the Bardavon was a star-studded benefit when Bill Vanaver was hospitalized, featuring Pete Seeger, Natalie Merchant and the Klezmatics.
Merchant will again be on hand for the Caravan gala on the 31st, serving as chair of the pre-show dinner at 5:30 p.m. at Frank Guido’s Little Italy restaurant, just around the corner from UPAC at 14 Thomas Street. Nora Guthrie – Woody’s daughter, Arlo’s sister, Livia’s friend who danced in the very first Vanaver Caravan concert in 1972 and longtime booster of the struggling company – will be the gala honoree.
The concert itself starts at 8 p.m., with a pre-concert talk at 7 p.m. It’s titled “Russian Caravan” and will feature the HVP along with singers from the Vassar Choir, Cappella Festiva, Kairos, the Ulster Choral Society and Camerata Chorale in a program that includes Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Opus 78 and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Opus 32 along with the two Bill Vanaver premieres. Livia was not asked to choreograph the famous battle on the ice from Nevsky for the Caravan Dancers, but, she said, “I’d love to give that a try! We’re always up for new creative challenges.”
Of course, the biggest challenge in the art world nowadays is finding funding for the next project. “Almost every project we do, we have to fundraise for,” Livia lamented. But all the members of the troupe, being troupers, are keeping their hopes high for a strong turnout at what should be an extraordinary evening of music, dance and spectacle. Gala tickets including both dinner and the concert cost $125 and may be ordered by calling Mark Sommers at (845) 633-1034 or online at www.vanavercaravan.org. Concert tickets alone range in price from $26 to $48, and can be obtained at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; at the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or via TicketMaster.
This event is sponsored by Rhinebeck Savings Bank, Chronogram and is also made possible by the Dr. Jeffrey Perchick Memorial Fund of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley. The Vanaver Caravan’s participation in the project is made possible in part with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts Dance Program and through support from the Ulster County Cultural Services & Promotion Fund administered by the Dutchess County Arts Council.