How often do you get an opportunity to feel culturally enriched while simultaneously contributing to a renowned force for arts-inspired education and world peace? On March 31, the Hudson Valley Philharmonic's "Russian Caravan" at UPAC offers an opportunity to do just that, with the premiere of two symphonic works by composer Bill Vanaver, accompanied by The Vanaver Caravan Dancers, choreographed by Livia Vanaver.
Prior to the show, Natalie Merchant will host a gala benefit dinner for the Caravan, honoring the life of Vanaver colleague Nora Guthrie—daughter of Woody and overseer of his estate and archives. Merchant is an ardent, longtime supporter of Vanaver Caravan. "Bill's and Livia's impact on this community has been great," says Merchant. "They are preserving traditional American dance, innovating new choreography, and their travels and research into world dance forms have all been incorporated into their repertoire."
"Russian Caravan," featuring works by Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Vanavers' New Paltz-based organization. The music-dance consortium began its journey in 1972, when erstwhile graphic arts student Bill Vanaver composed his first piece for Livia's senior dance concert at NYU. Within weeks, the couple formed The Vanaver Caravan and began delivering a mix of ethnic dance and folk music to diverse audiences.
Four decades later, Bill is a renowned folklorist, banjoist, and composer and Livia's a celebrated dancer, choreographer, and teacher. The couple has garnered prestigious awards for their service to education and tireless promotion of traditional folk songs, music, and dance. With their dancers, singers, and musicians, they've traveled the US, Europe, and North Africa, performing and gathering material, equally at home onstage, in cinderblock classrooms, or barefoot on wet grass. Locally, they are revered teachers, offering public school workshops, a dance academy, and the Vanaver Kids troupe.
"Being in Greek villages, Bulgarian villages, Tunisian streets, and experiencing their own vocabulary on their native soil has been the most exciting part of my musical life," says Bill Vanaver, fresh off a plane from Sweden, where The Vanaver Caravan toured schools and played two shows in support of the people of Papua New Guinea, currently suffering under brutal Indonesian rule. "I get a lot of my creative ideas from that."
Keeping to the multiethnic soul of the Vanaver template, the original pieces in "Russian Caravan" draw from diverse sources yet are bound by what Vanaver calls "the overriding aspect of love and connection. Love is the supreme motif." "The Earth Will Have Its Own" is based on myth and music from the Caucasus region of southeastern Russia, while "The Ballad of Polly Vaughn" comes from the British Isles by way of Appalachia. Dancers will encircle the 60-member Hudson Valley Philharmonic while banjo-wielding Vanaver accompanies members of the Vassar Choir and several special guests.
Explaining the approach of incorporating ancient forms of storytelling, Vanaver says, "Folklore and mythology, if you take them metaphorically, they guide us. That's my philosophy."
Merchant is a believer. "I met Bill Vanaver when I enrolled in his 'American Folk Music and Dance' class at Bard College in 2002," she says. "I met Livia after seeing her dance in the Vanaver Caravan production of 'Pastures of Plenty,' a tribute they created to celebrate the life and work of Woody Guthrie. She must have been 50 at the time but moved as if she were 20. Both Bill and Livia have the curiosity, enthusiasm, and stamina of children. No one living in the Hudson Valley should miss the chance to see The Vanaver Caravan."
"Russian Caravan" will be performed on Saturday, March 31, at 8pm at UPAC in Kingston. Tickets are $26-$48. (845) 339-6088; Upac.org. A pre concert gala dinner hosted by Natalie Merchant will be held at Frank Guido's Little Italy across from UPAC at 5:30pm. Gala tickets (including dinner and concert) are $125. RSVP by March 24. (845) 633-1034; Vanavercaravan.org.
—Robert Burke Warren