How many words are necessary to thrill an audience with a murder mystery? Choreographer Kristopher Estes-Brown says he can do it in two: "Look out!"
After all, he suggests, excitement happens in the body as much as in the mind.
"If you're trying to say very visceral things — fear and intrigue and distrust — the body is a really good vessel for that," Estes-Brown says.
The words "look out" are the only ones spoken in what is otherwise a dance performance. Titled "Alibi," its show is billed as a noir thriller.
"('Alibi') is Gotham meets Kansas City prohibition, 1920s," says Jennifer Tierney, who designed and constructed the costumes. "It's dark and stylized."
The show's about a present-day woman who is wrenched from her world and thrown into a noir film. By virtue of being an outsider, she becomes the prime suspect in a murder and must hunt down the true killer.
It's the third evening-length performance Estes-Brown has created. For about a month each summer, he employs professional dancers in their off-season for Concept Zero, a contemporary dance project he started in 2014.
In many ways, "Alibi" is not much different from an action movie, Estes-Brown says.
"An action movie isn't based on understanding complex things about the world as much as to be able to visually see this movement in space, to be able to visually communicate something," he notes.
To create tension, Estes-Brown puts the dancers' upper and lower bodies in conflict with each other. That causes torque in their spines, which must be resolved before they can go on to the next move. When the dancers appear askew and off-balance the audience feels that, Estes-Brown says.
"It's like how you can look at a human and you know whether or not they are happy or sad or don't feel well," he explains. "I don’t start with dance steps. I start with: How does the human express that type of conflict?"
Estes-Brown worked as a professional dancer for 14 years in California, Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest before transitioning to choreography and instructing dance in Kansas City where he grew up. Besides having founded Concept Zero, he is the co-artistic director of American Youth Ballet.
He met dancer and fashion designer Tierney while he was in Wisconson; she was one of the first Concept Zero dancers. She has since retired from dance as well, and now concentrates on the costumes.
Because only two words are used to tell the tale, the costumes must work a little harder than in other shows, Tierney says.
The majority of the designs use heavy-hanging weighted fabrics that have the look of leather but offer stretch for ease of movement, she says. In contrast, the woman who’s falsely accused wears a dress of chiffon and horsehair embellished with delicate eyelets that is so light it barely hangs at all.
The music and set must also do double duty. Estes-Brown composed and performed the score with high-quality digital samples of real instruments that he says sound as if he’s commanded a full orchestra.
And because the action is set inside a noir film, he also shot and edited black and white footage around Kansas City's West Bottoms and Crossroads that acts as a backdrop.
Estes-Brown says the show is doing more than what's immediately obvious; he's also interested in social commentary.
"Right now, there's this strange world we live in where there's two different truths sometimes, and people whole-heartedly believe those truths," he says. "Making a piece about that is pedantic and off-putting to at least some people no matter what."
Instead, he's wrapped his thoughts about our current social climate into an accessible plot.
"I think that's where dance is the best," he says. "It's where it evokes emotion, because you see human bodies and you place yourself in that human body."
"Alibi" by Concept Zero, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 5 and 6 at Polsky Theatre, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kansas 66210. Tickets are $25.