New Age Nebraska: ‘Entourage: A Ceremony of Dreams’, 1977

Exhibit / May 22, 2018

Object Name: “Entourage: A Ceremony of Dreams”
Maker and Year: Entourage Music and Dance Ensemble and Nebraska Public Television/Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, 1977-78
Object Type: Dance and music performance
Video Source: Wall Matthews (YouTube)/Nebraska Educational Telecommunications
Description: (Michael Grasso)

An experimental music group founded in Baltimore, Maryland in 1970, The Entourage Music and Theatre Ensemble began as an exploration into the edges of jazz, folk, and free-form ambient music. Their self-titled debut album with Folkways Records, an independent American record label focusing on folk music, spoken word, and field recordings, was released in 1973. Entourage’s early lineup—Joe Clark (saxophone, keyboard), Rusty Clark (viola, guitar), Michael Smith (percussion)—was later bolstered by Wall Matthews (guitar, keyboard). The group constructed a collaborative musical style they called “flow music” and a performance ethic that expressly integrated other media: notably and most prominently, modern dance. Joe Clark termed this improvisational and collaborative style “collective composition.” In an effort to work with modern dance programs and troupes, Clark worked with dance students at both the now-defunct Bennett College in Millbrook, New York and the Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Entourage’s early ’70s output sounds to modern ears like nothing less than a founding proto-document of the later explosion in New Age music in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The performance in this video was commissioned by Nebraska Public Television as part of an overall artistic celebration of America’s bicentennial and the completion of I-80 through Nebraska in 1974. (The so-called “Eisenhower” Interstate System, proposed in 1956, was not completed in some states until as late as 1990; Nebraska’s single Interstate made them the first state able to completely finish their portion of the Interstate System.) In the years leading up to 1976, the State of Nebraska had commissioned an organization, the Nebraska Interstate 80 Bicentennial Sculpture Corporation, to solicit a series of a dozen large sculptures to be displayed along Interstate 80. Only eight were eventually completed. The finalists lived in nearby communities during the creation of their sculptures, and, in 1976, the eight sculptures were completed and installed. While a majority of the sculptures evoke Nebraska’s settler history (titles include “Crossing The Plains,” “Arrival,” “Nebraskan Gateway”), these sculptures also stand as a physical dedication of civic pride in the American landscape in the latter half of the 20th century: a landscape largely shaped and created by the automobile. (Comparisons between the wagon trains of the 19th century and the station wagons of the 20th can be left to the individual observer.) This legacy is most prominently evoked by the shape and title of Hans Van de Bovenkamp’s “Roadway Confluence,” seen at the beginning of the video performance. At the time, though, the project was controversial; despite the patriotic titles and subject matter, the abstract style of most of the sculptures was reportedly out of step with the preferences of Nebraskans, as was the fact that the project was eventually entirely designed by non-Nebraskan artists.

The performance that the Entourage dancers unleash upon five of the highway sculptures in this half-hour special is nothing less than a lost document of American hauntology. From the opening credits in their faux-medieval Uncial font (the Uncial font family’s popularity in the 1970s is evident on the covers of ’70s fantasy novels, in the credits of fantasy films, on albums like Rush’s 1977 effort A Farewell to Kings, and even on ultra-modern musical instruments), to the six members of Entourage dressed in ominous cloaks (musicians Joe Clark and Wall Matthews and dancers Laurie Cameron, Wendy Goldman, Martha Moore, and Cindy Beres), the anachronistic aesthetic of the piece is set from the outset. Much like the opening of film version of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, we the audience get to see the modern performers selecting and donning their costumes before the performance gets underway. We are very intentionally being given the opportunity to look behind the curtain and enter a different world along with the cast. The titles each performer is granted in the opening credits (“the Inducer,” “the Mediator,” “the Determinator,” “the Messenger”) are simultaneously evocative of the kinds of titles a ritual magician and his cabal might assume, as well as the kind of titles found in a modern industrial or technocratic project. As the six performers don cowls and robes and ritualistically march before “Roadway Confluence,” we find ourselves lost in time and space, in a landscape made all the more uncanny by the broken, cloud-covered lighting of the Nebraska prairies at magic hour.

The entire performance seems to exist simultaneously in the present and in another time: Clark’s saxophone and Matthews’s acoustic guitar are reminders of the 20th century, but the blank landscape dominated by the alien forms of the sculptures, along with the costuming (which shifts from cult-like robes to multi-colored harlequin-like outfits over the performance) places us in a weird no-time. Perhaps we are seeing a ritual playing out on a post-apocalyptic American landscape? The jagged angles of “Erma’s Desire” by John Raimondi are eerily reminiscent of the “Landscape of Thorns” markers that activist think-tankers in the 1990s dreamed up to mark the sites of nuclear waste to far-future populations. The performers carve out a circular ritual space in the midst of the sculpture titled “Crossing the Plains” (sculpted by Bradford Graves) and celebrate amidst the hinted-at archway of “Nebraskan Gateway” (sculpted by Anthony Padavano). The wireframe structure of Paul von Ringleheim’s “Arrival” evokes a jubilant magician—or perhaps the X-shaped cross upon which St. Andrew was crucified. Throughout the dance routines, Clark (noted in the credits as “the Leader”) uses his horn like a wand; at several points in the performance his body language is expressly evocative of the kind of ritual movements involved in Western magical traditions (seen, for example, on “The Magician” card from the traditional Tarot deck).

But outside of the eerie, futuristic structures of the I-80 sculpture project and the episodes within the performance that resemble ceremonies, the music and dance components of the performance also evoke the natural world. The dancers at several points seem to imitate growing plants sinuously writhing up the sides of the sculptures, and Clark’s saxophone squawks out in the style of bird calls (as in the song “Nature Spirits”) or whale songs. In fact, several of the musical compositions are from Entourage’s second album, 1976’s The Neptune Collection. Songs focusing on aquatic themes, like “Neptune Rising” from The Neptune Collection and “Journey By Water” and “Temple of Whales,” composed for this performance, are doubly intriguing considering their contrast with the landscape of Nebraska, the only triply landlocked state in the country. This further juxtaposition of the gentle sounds and motions of nature produced by the Entourage troupe with the hard, unyielding metal edges of the sculptures is yet another aesthetic contrast which produces tension and uncanniness.

The act of viewing this video document—a free-form art project little understood by the citizens using the highway, funded by public funds and airing on public televisionseems like a missive from an alternate history. This is the power of avant-garde, publicly-funded art. British critic Mark Fisher identified this dying late-’70s impulse in his 2014 book Ghosts of My Life: “Most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and 80s,” he says, owe their existence to the British welfare state: “The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed.” Entourage did not make much headway into the 1980s; the group informally broke up after the broadcast of A Ceremony of Dreams, and the deaths of original members Joe Clark in 1983 and Rusty Clark in 1986 put an end to one of the most unique performing troupes of the 1970s. Thankfully, this odd, haunted little broadcast lives on, thanks to public television and a vivid, social commitment to the idea of public art.

8 thoughts on “New Age Nebraska: ‘Entourage: A Ceremony of Dreams’, 1977

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  7. makes me wish there was a WABAC machine for me to hop in and travel back to 1977 and re-experience that year knowing what i know now. i had no idea such art as this existed, there was no PBS station within reception range in my neck of the woods.

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