The Friday, April 5th performance of Danceworks 2013 was dedicated to Linda Roberts, who, after 42 years of teaching in the Department of Theatre and Dance, will retire this May and FINALLY get some sleep. Like many other alumni, I attended the performance to remember where the department has been. I am sure I am not alone when I say that the level of dancing and overall choreographic strength leaves me excited for where the department will go.
The show included an impressive range of choreography, by Martha Graham, May O’Donnell, Bill T. Jones, and Earl Mosley, to name a few. The theme, “Myth and Transformation,” was evident in each piece, which tenaciously led—or yanked—the audience along an aesthetic journey spanning decades of innovation in dance. Among iconic works, including the “Daughters of the Night” Chorus from Graham’s Night Journey, Rebecca Stenn’s Approaching Silence was premiered. Formerly of MOMIX and now director of her own company since 1996, Stenn was commissioned through the Department of Theatre and Dance New Works Initiative (NWI). With a text inspired by the work of Harold Pinter, Stenn’s dance-theater piece conveyed a deep-felt nostalgia for memories long gone or, perhaps, a wishful yearning for dreams not yet lived. Read more »
I started my passionate love affair with libraries by protesting two of them. An odd beginning to a love affair, but stranger things have happened. Both my former high school library and public library had banned the book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, and, in protest, a group of fellow theater artists and I started touring around performing readings of the book anywhere people would let us—a project we called Revolutionary Readings. This caught the attention of the Princeton Public Library, who invited us to speak and perform from the book. Unlike the libraries we were protesting, they felt that books should be on shelves, not banned. Throughout this process, my views on libraries and librarians shifted from the stereotypical vision of quiet, dusty book shelves patrolled by little old ladies to what I now find to be a much more accurate description: cultural centers operated by fierce advocates of access to knowledge. Read more »
In Katlehong Cabaret, presented exclusively in the United States by Peak Performances, all the familiar elements of cabaret are incorporated: an opening number that builds slowly into a full-company anthem, an uplifting love duet, a melancholy torch song, a bejeweled diva, a virtuosic tap solo, physical comedy, audience participation, a self-deprecating emcee, a show-stopping ensemble dance number, even a rousing can-can routine (one that might have made the ladies of the Moulin Rouge high-kick in their graves, but nonetheless…). Although the format is familiar, this is unlike any cabaret come before it, in that the headliner at this nightclub is South Africa herself. Read more »
My first paid acting gig—for $50 and a beer—was Romeo Castellucci’s Hey Girl! (followed closely by a gig walking around dressed as Andy Warhol to promote a Polaroid exhibition). Hey Girl! was an experience I’ll never forget, in part because I keep meeting people who have seen it and are always eager to share their thoughts. Years later, their reactions are stronger than many people’s reactions to shows they have seen only moments before. Passionate reactions, both positive and negative, are what one can expect in response to work by someone like Castellucci, whose abstract yet polarizing images will either turn you on or make you want to run from the theater. I’ve heard reviews from both ends of the spectrum. Read more »
Imagine, if you will, a casting notice: “Local children wanted for Italian theater production containing adult themes on aging and illness. Children will be expected to throw rocks at a Renaissance portrait of Jesus. Please bring backpack.” Such was one challenge for Peak Performances in presenting Romeo Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God. Six children, aged 10 to 13, were nonetheless recruited; most were children of local artists or academics with relationships to either Peak Performances or Montclair State. I had an interesting vantage point among all this, in that I was hired to serve as a “wrangler” for the local kids—to be an extra point of contact for their parents and an extra backstage adult ensuring that the kids were where they needed to be when they needed to be there. I knew little else about the show when I agreed to the gig. Read more »
On Thursday, December 13th, Peak Performances hosted the second of its new Sneak Peeks series, in which audiences are afforded the opportunity to listen to presentations by and interact with artists or experts on the piece they are about to see. I was lucky enough to witness the first, a preshow talk by Nancy Dalva, scholar in residence at the Merce Cunningham Trust. The experience was so informative and beneficial to my experience as a witness to the L.A. Dance Project’s performance that I was thrilled to be able to attend the latest Sneak Peek, this time for the Richard Alston Dance Company, who would be presenting three dances: Roughcut, Unfinished Business, and the American premiere of A Ceremony of Carols. A Ceremony of Carols would feature the Prima Voce choir under the direction of John J. Cali School of Music faculty member Heather J. Buchanan. Read more »
Peak Performances has launched a new preshow discussion series called “Sneak Peeks.” The series is an opportunity for audience members to interact with professionals who either are involved directly with the production or are experts on some area of the work presented. The first Sneak Peek premiered Thursday, October 25th, in advance of the regional debut of Benjamin Millepied’s company, L.A. Dance Project. It featured speaker Nancy Dalva, scholar in residence at the Merce Cunningham Trust, which holds and administers the rights to the 65-year catalogue of work by choreographer Merce Cunningham. In addition to Moving Parts, a new piece by Millepied, and Quintett, by William Forsythe, Cunningham’s 1964 piece Winterbranch was performed by the L.A. Dance Project—the first time the work has been performed by a company other than Cunningham’s.
During Dalva’s talk, I was most moved by her profound passion and commitment to Cunningham’s work. “A lot has come from Merce, but nothing has gone past him. He’s been dead for two years, and he’s still in the avant-garde.” Read more »
Benjamin Millepied, a French choreographer with a largely balletic background and lately popularized by his work on the psychological dance thriller Black Swan, has assembled a company of six boundlessly athletic and sexy young dancers capable of tackling the challenge before them: an evening of three works representing the spectrum, historically and stylistically, of contemporary dance. The choice of these three pieces—Millepied’s own Moving Parts (2012), Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964), and William Forsythe’s Quintett (1993)—and the way they collectively demonstrate what contemporary dance is capable of make for a highly successful evening, one that not only exhibits varied styles of movement within the canon but provides an interesting examination of how certain attendant technical elements of contemporary dance performance—music, lights, scenery—contribute to its overall spirit as an art form. Read more »
Dog Days, a new opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, launched the 2012-13 Peak Performances season. To kick off this year’s Student Forum series, Montclair State dramaturgy students respond with their own take on what critics described as “formidable,” “unforgettable,” and “unsettling.” The students were asked to compare the performance to the original story by Judy Budnitz and to analyze how the story worked as an opera. Read on for perspectives by Liz Lehman (below) and Mia Zanette. Thanks to our collaborators at Montclair State’s Creative Research Center for sharing these analyses as part of an ongoing effort to showcase writing by Montclair State undergraduate students.
After trying and trying and trying to imagine Judy Budnitz’s story as an opera, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t, and I’m so very grateful that I couldn’t, because experiencing this production with no expectations or preconceived ideas about it allowed me to be taken through so many wonderful surprises. At the very least, I was expecting it to be presented as a traditional opera—or not. Either or. I couldn’t imagine an effective middle ground. Thankfully, David T. Little figured that bit out himself.
It turned out that each performer was indeed a classically trained singer, with a larger-than-life voice and quivering vibrato. Before seeing the performance, I was afraid that this choice would be too incongruous with such a small, simple story, but any misgivings I had about the medium were put to rest within the first few minutes of the opera. The production opens cold, with the father booming “Get me my rifle!”—and that is just immediately acceptable. You don’t question why the performers are singing, because that’s simply how they communicate. It does not seem at all out of place.
Also impressively seamless is the integration of new technology into this production. In act 2, Lauren Worsham, who plays the young daughter, dances with a mirror for at least 10 minutes. This would be impressive on its own, but to make it even more challenging they fixed a camera to the mirror, which fed a live recording of the actor’s face onto an enormous screen above the set. This results in two scenes playing out at the same time, in the same space, with the same performer. Below the screen, we catch vague glimpses of a young girl admiring her developing figure in the mirror. On screen, however, we are treated to every nuance of her facial expressions, and this paints a different picture entirely. We are forced to watch, point blank, as an innocent child comes completely undone, so injured by her isolation that she looks for beauty in her own starvation. It is truly chilling, not to mention brilliantly presented through a medium one would rarely see in an opera.
Most striking of all, however, is the opera’s epilogue. I was sincerely nervous for the opera to come to this conclusion, because I was enjoying it so much up until that point and also because the ambiguous ending of the original story is so perfect. I was mostly afraid that having an outcome picked for me would be too safe, too anticlimactic. I don’t think I have ever been more wrong about anything.
The gunshot fired at the dog activates this stark new reality as the fluorescent lights are brought up over the action unfolding onstage. The orchestra drops out completely, and tuneless mechanical drones begin to hum to life. Meanwhile, Lisa is left to wash her mother’s dead body, which, as the theater gradually becomes louder and brighter, is absolutely electric to watch. The anticipation mounted in a way that is typically broken within a few seconds, but it just kept building until I actually began inventing terrible ways for it all to finally collapse. We were all sitting there wondering whether Lisa would soon resort to cannibalism, like the rest of her living family, or whether she would die as well, when all that was being played out on stage was the simple action of cleansing. The “noise aria” instilled an acute paranoia in me, the equivalent of which I had never experienced in a theater before.
There’s suspense, and then there’s the climax of Dog Days, which could very well put you on the verge of physical illness. After 12 full minutes of deafening noise, blinding lights, and utterly horrifying events, it came almost too close to being too much to take but ended up breaking at exactly the right time. If I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the opera so much, I’d think it was manipulative, but it was handled too intelligently to come off that way. You could tell how specifically the noise was engineered and how it played off of the performers’ energy in the live space. You have to appreciate how risky it is to end an opera with a totally wordless 10-minute sequence like that, but in this case it was so purposeful and fitting that I was left shaking in my seat after the performance.
Dog Days is a triumph in more than one way. On one hand, it just goes to show how limitless the potential is for adaptations in theater. I am now totally convinced that you could adapt anything into an opera, and it will work as long as you find ways to make it work. However, what struck me as the most important part of this production was that it brought innovation to an art form that hasn’t seen much development over the past few decades. The creators of Dog Days carefully examined the different ways theater is expanding and reinventing itself and transfused those innovative ideas with the aesthetic of classical opera. It’s so reassuring to see how committed talented, creative new artists are to reviving less-explored media in live theatre. At the very least, it keeps things interesting.
Liz Lehman is a Theatre Studies major in the College of the Arts at Montclair State. This excerpt is from an essay written for the class Introduction to Dramaturgy, taught by Dr. Neil Baldwin, fall 2012.