Why Kansas Citians Are Dancing On The Streetcar

Aug 16, 2017

The lunch crowd boarded the streetcar at Union Station on a busy Wednesday afternoon. Every seat was taken and people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The doors shut, but instead of taking off, the train idled. Four mysterious riders in dress coats and fedoras approached the car. The doors opened again, and, with one uniform step, they boarded the train.

These mysterious travelers were actually dancers. They remained fairly still for the first minute, but as soon as someone signaled for a stop, the dancers broke out in random movements.

These random movements, cued by sounds from streetcar, were all part of Kansas City artist Jon Michael Johnson’s performance, "CUE!"

He’s one of the many artist involved with Art in the Loop, a foundation that aims to enrich arts in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The foundation engages all types of artists: dancers, theatrical performers, musicians, poets.

“When I got to Kansas City, I saw this call for artists,” Johnson said.

Johnson is originally from Kansas City, but he spent 30 years in New York City before moving back. He’s used to creating his art around the sound and bustle of a city, and he wanted to bring that creativity to Kansas City.

“Kansas City is a spectacular place. I don't think a lot of Kansas Citians really know that. I think that they don't recognize how great this place really is. It's sort of like an American Shangri-La in a way. It has the best of everything and it's hidden from view in a weird way,” Johnson said.

The dancers rehearsed once, but Johnson knew that the performance would be a little random — he wanted to use the element of surprise throughout his piece.

“We were doing something where any movement was cued off of sounds on the street car,” Johnson said. “So, going into it, you have a picture of sort of a linear performance happening that really is completely unrealistic and turns out to be quite different than you expected it to be or than you thought it could be. But that's all part of what makes it interesting”.

The bells, whistles and beeps of the streetcar are what prompted each dancer to move, but Johnson gave his performers creative authority to move in his or her own style.

Performer Beth Byrd-Lonski listens for her cue to move on the streetcar.
Credit Danielle Hogerty / KCUR 89.3

Two performers, AY Young and Alex Lamb, are street performers and one, Jeramy Zimmerman, is a classically trained dancer. The last performer, Beth Byrd-Lonski, is a clown, mime and physical theater artist. She wasn’t wearing a red wig or over-sized shoes, but she was sure to including clown-like movements into her act.  

“We all had a different take on how we were going to respond to the cues, then [Jon] just kind of had an over direction for us,” Byrd-Lonski said. “So I had more of a comical approach to the moves.”

Young made smooth, break dance-like movements and often interacted with the crowd. At one point in the performance, an audience member began dancing with him.

“I guess he felt the energy that I was giving off, and I love it when people give that back to you,” Young said. “You feel the movement of the train, you feel the energy of the people and then you just let your moves reflect it.”

As the car approached Union Station, the dancers snaked their way toward the middle aisle. Then, just as they entered the car, they exited with one uniform step. They weren’t the center of attention on the streetcar that day, but Johnson and the dancers felt like the performance was a success.

“People really loved it, and I don't even think that they probably knew there were four performers, they thought there was just a couple. They weren't really sure what was going on, but they liked what it was. I appreciated that,” Johnson said.

Danielle Hogerty is an intern for KCUR 89.3.