You might suppose a performance by Curtis Eller's American Circus already has about as much choreography as it can stand. The tall, lanky, high-energy songsmith with the 'stache and the wiry hair bounces, bobs, and shakes his unpredictable way through his catalog of alternative Americana. Depending on the number, Eller leads his banjo like a dancing partner through a modified duck walk, a whirl, a tango, or a waltz, only to interrupt the proceedings with a Rockettes-style high kick to the side.
"I'm usually going nuts," Eller admits, "and the band all kind of satellites around what I'm doing. Over the years, my stage routine's become so physically extreme that dancers come to my shows and ask me about it."
Durham choreographer Stacy Wolfson went much further than that. When she proposed a collaboration with her dance company, The Bipeds, she didn't just want to use Eller's music in an evening-length piece. She also wanted to incorporate his movements into the choreography, and this weekend, after eight months of work, Never, Enough, Better, Nothing will premiere at The Shed, the jazz club at Golden Belt.
Wolfson remembers first thinking that Eller and the band's moves were "kind of like Merce Cunningham—there were all these elements of surprise. The way they integrate movement into their performance is organic; it's not something they do deliberately."
Wolfson's initial reactions suggested balance as a theme: physical balance, life balance, and balance within relationships. But as the choreography emerged through improvisations to the band's recorded songs, she began to focus on balance within families. (Eller and Wolfson each have children in the same public school.) She kept returning to how we're affected when we're out of balance in family interactions. "How it's disorienting," she explains, "how it can be silly, who's got your back and who doesn't—all the emotions that arise from disequilibrium."
In songs like "Sweatshop Fire," "Dry Lightning," and "Thunder and Beehives," Eller places relationship crises against a backdrop of deprivation, drought, or historical disaster.
"It's tragic material delivered for maximum comic potential," he says. Though Wolfson thinks the songs suggest "a collection of short stories," she was surprised to find that Never, Enough, Better, Nothing wound up seeming to tell a different, unified tale.
"It's formed a strange sort of narrative, a singular arc," Wolfson says. "We didn't plan for it to happen. It just did."
Initially, Wolfson's performers were a bit tentative around Eller in rehearsal. "Then I told them, 'You can push me, you can touch me, you can trip me'," Eller says. "It's like they needed a push: some different reason to get inside the collaboration."
The process has helped Eller, who never had any formal dance training, discover new parallels between music and dance.
"When I'm with musicians, they provide sonic harmony to what I'm playing," he says. "In this show, the dancers feel like visual harmony. They seem to be harmonizing with one another when they dance, and when I sing to them, I feel like I'm harmonizing with them."
This article appeared in print with the headline "What Has Eighteen Legs and Really Cooks?"