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Review 2, 10-24: 'Rite' of Varone
Post-modern at the Met
By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung
NEW YORK -- It makes
for a combustible mix when modern dance meets the opera crowd on
the latter's turf. The Metropolitan Opera recently commissioned
Doug Varone to re-choreograph "Le Sacre du Printemps," one third
of a Stravinsky evening conducted by Valery Gergiev, with sets and
costumes by David Hockney. Seen October 13, the program, originally
presented in 1981 on the occasion of the centenary of Stravinsky's
birth, was balanced out by "Le Rossignol" (choreographed by Frederick
Ashton, and danced by Julie Kent and Damian Woetzel) and "Oedipus
Rex," in a production with almost no movement at all. People sitting
nearby this reviewer made some uncharitable comments about this
"Sacre du Printemps," but Varone honored the austerity of the story
and created a compelling dance theater piece on a grand scale.
Varone has caught the
eye of several opera companies by now, having choreographed for
New York City Opera, Opera Colorado, and Washington Opera, in addition
to the Met. It's easy to see why -- his nontraditional movements
capture basic human emotions with great economy and little fuss,
and they can be read legibly from a distance. For "Le Sacre du Printemps,"
he set the timeframe just past the evolution of homosapiens' bipedalism;
the dancers wore face paint and earth-hued costumes. Nina Watt and
Larry Hahn portrayed the sages, or tribal leaders. The two gangs,
comprising women and men, began piled atop one another, arms rippling
in waves, pushing our gaze along like a beach-ball in a crowd.
Varone is a good match
for Stravinksy. He choreographs movement in fits and starts, at
times all punctuation, at other times flowing phrases with strong
anchored elements. He moved the crowd in obedient lines and circles,
and split it into small groups which took turns initiating flickering
motions so the audience's eye darted from one part of the stage
to the other. After a series of tests that would be a match for
any Broadway cattle call, the sages chose Adrian Fang and Eddie
Taketa as the lucky chosen ones. They danced in tandem, seemingly
torn limb from limb, flinging themselves to the stage without care.
Many versions of "Le Sacre du Printemps" seem revolutionary, simply
because the score still sounds radical after 90 years. Here, Varone
has stripped the narrative to the basics and presented it devoid
of contemporary pretense or gender chauvinism.
In stark contrast, "Le
Rossignol," choreographed by Frederick Ashton and based on a fairy-tale
by Hans Christian Anderson, was like a box of petits fours -- one
confection next to another, each made of layer upon layer of baby
blue icing. The story tells of a sweet-singing nightingale replaced
by a mechanical bird, with the nightingale's artistry triumphing
in the end. Hockney's eye-popping set featured cleverly: performers
carried staffs with giant simplified masks; these behaved as huge
surrogate heads, leaning toward the emperor in rapt attention; others
brandished illuminated pineapples.
New York City Ballet's
Damian Woetzel, in the role of the fisherman, sat in the middle
of a circle over which a fantastic silken banner depicting Chinese
architectural elements descended. The elegant Julie Kent (of American
Ballet Theatre) as the nightingale emerged from a tree, languid
arms rippling, head darting to and fro. Both dancers excelled at
the physical acting required to convey character through movement.
Woetzel dances with a relaxed virtuosity like few others. Kent is
so lithe and ethereal that she is sometimes subsumed by the sets
or by other dancers, but this role played up her strengths and the
direction allowed us to focus on her. Two singers stood in the pit
with their heads visible, Barry Banks as the Fisherman and Olga
Trifonova as the Nightingale, who sang with a crystalline sweetness.
Additional characters sang and acted their roles onstage.
The final act, "Oedipus
Rex," featured a libretto written by Jean Cocteau after Sophocles,
and was narrated by the actor Philip Bosco, who sat in an armchair
just in front of the apron. Fifty-eight statue-like male chorus
members anchored the black and red-hued set; they sat in two rows
downstage in front of a platform on which the other singers performed.
The near absence of movement proved frustrating after two such visually
stimulating works, but the dynamic music, rendered spectacularly
dramatic by Gergiev's conducting, at least pleased the audience's
opera purists, who seemingly had deemed "Le Sacre du Printemps"
the chosen one, ready to sacrifice. David Kneuss stage directed;
Wayne Chouinard designed the lighting.
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