April 08, 2020

THE ‘MILK MAN’ EXPERIMENT Original Ballet inspired by album of indie rock band being put on by North Haven schoolchildren

The big black bowling ball rolled menacingly across the stage at Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven. Eight children, ages 6 to 9, tailed after it as it disappeared into the wings. The ball came back out and the kids, as if transfixed, tagged after it again. The only sound was the rolling ball and the soft shuffle of small sock-clad feet on the floor.

Then a giggle broke the silence.

“It’s gonna roll into the curtain!” cautioned Megan Goodell, 9, who broke character and hung her hands like a gorilla, bumping into the kid in front of her.

“Focus, guys!” choreographer Ken Jones reminded his cast. “Let the ball pull you.”

The youngsters made their way across the stage one more time, and then took a break. Megan resumed her favorite position (a headstand) and her 6-year-old sister, Macie, flopped down like a rag doll. They were worn out from a long night of rehearsing for the K-12 North Haven Community School’s production of “Milk Man,” an original ballet inspired by the album of the same name by Deerhoof, a San Francisco indie rock band that has won praise from The New York Times and Rolling Stone for its experimental, genre-defying music.

Deerhoof not only gave the tiny Maine island school its blessing and permission to adapt its music, but the band members plan to take a few days off from their national tour and travel to North Haven next week to see the show. “Milk Man” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 23-24, at Waterman’s Community Center. While in Maine, Deerhoof also will play at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at the Space Gallery in Portland.

The band, made up of drummer Greg Saunier, bassist and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, and guitarist John Dieterich, couldn’t be more excited about the school’s production of “Milk Man.”

“For us, it’s very much a dream in so many ways,” said Saunier, speaking by phone from San Francisco. “To think that some music you made has started to have a life of its own without you is the most you can really ever hope for.”

Needless to say, the ballet “Milk Man” is just a bit unorthodox – and not only because the main character is a bowling ball.

“One night I stayed up all night listening to ‘Milk Man’ over and over again. I listened to it six times in a row. I couldn’t stop listening, it was too good. After a while, it became clear to me that it was a story, and that it could be told through staging and dance,” said Courtney Naliboff, the school’s music teacher, who was in a bunch of Boston-based bands, including the Valhalla Kittens, Nonfamous and the Gato Malo Orchestra, before coming to North Haven in the fall of 2005.

When she directed the school’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” she realized she had the place, budget and, most of all, the talent to realize her concept for “Milk Man.” The North Haven community, including the school, is known statewide for theater and music. Award-winning director John Wulp guided both students and adults through a number of noted productions, from classics such as “Our Town” to an original play, “Islands,” which made it as far as Broadway.

“Milk Man” is one of the island’s more challenging efforts. Deerhoof’s music ranges from the boisterous garage rock of 2003’s “Apple O,” to the complexity of its most recent album, “The Runners Four.” What is constant, throughout the band’s music, is Saunier’s big, thunderous drumming, Dieterich’s inventive, discordant guitar playing and Matsuzaki’s sweet, elfin vocals.

“Milk Man” is based on a series of drawings by Japanese artist Ken Kagami, which grace the album cover and liner notes. Every part of the album was recorded separately on a computer by each band member in 2004, lending it an air of playful experimentation.

“Ken had all these drawings of Milk Man, so we said, ‘Hey, Ken, we’re gonna start a new album, can we call it Milk Man and use this drawing as the cover?'” said Saunier. “He said OK. But then as we set about to start to make the songs and come up with lyrics, we’d go to him and ask him questions: ‘So who is this guy? What does he think? What does he do?’

“It’s funny, because basically he instantly turned to stone and had no answer at all. Not even the slightest hint,” he continued. “What we ended up doing was Satomi wrote the lyrics just describing the image, and so the first song on the CD is called ‘Milk Man’. Then she took off from there.”

Naliboff’s take on the Matsuzaki’s story is that the Milk Man is a kind of pied piper.

“It’s kind of a scary story that moms tell their kids,” she explained. “He leads a group of kids away to his castle in the sky, and their parents have to come rescue them.”

Naliboff, whose tastes run the gamut from Brian Eno to Brian Wilson, says Deerhoof is the most original of any band playing right now.

“It’s very exciting to have a band where I don’t have words to describe what they sound like,” she said. “It’s childlike in the best possible way.”

So who better to perform in the show than children?

Jones, the school’s gym and art teacher, danced with the former Portland troupe Ram Island Dance Company and other groups before coming to North Haven. He said that elementary school kids cotton to dancing in a show better than middle or high school students. He incorporates elements of creative movement in gym classes through sixth grade, but students become more self-conscious, and less willing to express themselves freely as they get older.

“So the kids involved in this piece know that this is something straight from gym,” said Jones. “When I say, ‘Try to keep a balloon floating using only your elbows, or your knees,’ they’ve already experienced it.”

For “Milk Man,” instead of traditional dance moves, Jones choreographed fluid, intuitive movements that don’t require exact positions or memorization.

“They are so small, so a lot of the work has been to increase their [movement] vocabulary, and teach them how to respond to the feeling of the music, and the sounds,” he elaborated. “We use things like towels, plastic bags, ping pong balls. It can give you all kinds of movement qualities inside kids. I’m approaching this as almost a visual installation – layering movement on top of music.”

The sets, which include ropes, balloons and cloth, are simple, while dancers’ costumes consist only of white pants, shoes and shirts.

While Jones has been putting his kids through their moves, Naliboff has been practicing with a group of students and community members to work out the music. She arranged all 10 songs on the album for guitar, bass, piano, keyboards and drums, as well as trumpet, saxophone, flute, violin, banjo and glockenspiel – from the upbeat title track to the lumbering, spooky “Giga Dance.”

“It’s both easy and hard to arrange this,” said Naliboff. “Some of the Casio keyboard sounds on the album we’re using a recorder for, and some of the guitar parts are broken into four parts for different instruments. I didn’t want to go into it with too many preconceived ideas, or to change the form or feel of the album.”

Naliboff and her partner, Bill Trevaskis, handle the guitar, bass and keyboards. Drums, banjo and glockenspiel are provided by North Haven’s Jake Greenlaw and Colin Gulley, both of whom make a living lobster fishing and doing other jobs, but are also in a local band called the Toughcats. Then there’s the Rev. Dave Macy on trumpet, and 12-year-old Craig Waterman, a budding talent, on sax.

“I had never heard of Deerhoof before this, and I had definitely never heard anything like it,” confessed the seventh-grader. “But I’ve really gotten to like it. It was hard to play at first, but it’s getting easier.”

“When I first played the album for them, some of them were scared,” said Naliboff. “Now they think it’s weird and cool. Some of the youngest ones were afraid the Milk Man would be scary, but he’s not.”

Nine-year-old Natalie Carrier, whose favorite Deerhoof song to perform is “Dog on the Sidewalk,” doesn’t find him scary at all.

“I think the Milk Man is really neat. I really like using the bowling ball,” she said. “I like all the rolling around and tumbling we do, and the hopscotching. I like Deerhoof. It’s really different.”

“Milk Man” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, and Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Waterman’s Community Center in North Haven. Admission is $5 and $3 for children. The school’s phone number is 867-4707. Visit Deerhoof’s web sites at http://deerhoof.killrockstars.com, or www.myspace.com/deerhoof. They also are scheduled to perform at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, at the Space Gallery in Portland. Tickets are $8; for information, visit www.space538.org. Emily Burnham can be reached at eburnham@bangordailynews.net.

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