Wolf-In-Skins previews at Philadelphia Dance Projects

By Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal


At the Conwell Theater on the Temple University campus, Philadelphia Dance Projects is presenting sections from Wolf-In-Skins, a dance-opera by New York-based choreographer Christopher Williams and composer Gregory Spears. The libretto by Williams, is based on ancient Welsh myths, set in a medieval courtly drama and an untamed netherworld.

Six of Philadelphia’s most dynamic independent dancers – Beau Hancock, Gregory Holt, Drew Kaiser, Stuart Meyers, Alec Moss and Gabrielle Revlock- are part of a cast of over 30 singers, musicians and dancers performing in scene extracts at the Conwell.  Spears and Williams have collaborated on a trilogy of works for five years, but Wolf is their most ambitious project yet.

Segments were previewed at American Opera Projects in 2011, but the Philly performances will be the most realized staged sections of the work so far. The only thing missing will be some of the planned set pieces,” Williams explained. The full production date is undetermined, but he said there are negotiations for the full version, with New York Live Arts to co-producing possibly for spring 2014.

Last week, the Philadelphia cast was in the second sessions of rehearsals at the Conwell with Williams and Spears for the ‘court dance sequences.  Williams, was singing the score as he is refining the choreography for “the dance of the courtiers and courtesans. “ with Spears at the piano.

Photo: Christopher Williams

Williams seems to be everywhere at once, but the atmosphere is not frantic. Williams demonstrates moves in the scene or darting over to consult with Spears on a point in the score, or checking his digital video track on his computer as well as checking the sight and sound spots from the seating.  He picks up the song cues and sings with complete serenity.

Terry Fox, artistic director of Philadelphia Dance Projects, saw the piece in development in New York, said it is PDP’s biggest commission to date. “There such specificity in Christopher’s direction,” Fox observes, that’s how Christopher works on every level. He danced among the singers, he executed the wolf movements in the various stages of the development,” she said. “He communicates the subtleties and theatricality so well.”

Fox noted that there were challenges for him working with the opera singers who had to move as characters in the scenes but that Williams simplified the movements, to be simple but dramatically effective.

The instrumentation is played by an 11- piece orchestra on some period instruments with musicians from the Sebastian Chamber Players.

The court scene revolves around this wizard king character, which follows a scene set in the woods.  Williams wrote the story, a mash-up of “shared tropes in Welsh myths and I got very interested in the sources, went back further to denizens of early Celtic mythology and what I found that they are from an ancient myths of the British Isles, that were expressed in different ways locally,” he said. “Characters in the human world, come from the 13th century Welsh romance tales, and they aren’t really Christianized. Things like animal transformation and passage to the underworld, is present in medieval literature.”

Gregory Spears
Photo: Gregory Spears

Spears uses various classical forms madrigals, choral baroque and pre-classical genres that tells the story orchestrally and Williams choreography, is atmospheric and period decorous.  Williams extends with modern components, sculptural torso groupings and intimate communalism. His repeated use of dancer-entwined spirals has an earthy and ethereal beauty. Even though this was a rushed rehearsal, the work looked completely polished and the atmosphere was very relaxed.

Williams and Spears had to return to New York the after working with the Philadelphia dancers. He spoke by phone from his home over the weekend, just before he was heading out “I’ll be heading out to my neighbor’s, Andrew Jordon, a costume collaborator actually and we’re putting some final touches on some of the costumes before rehearsal today. There are the human characters and a set of costumes for them being built by Ciera Wells and Carol Binion.  Then the supernatural dancing characters, who I call ‘the fay‘~ werewolves, the white and red cubs.”

Williams is a dance costumer and puppeteer “Eventually, there are also going to be six puppeteers in this piece. The ideas for this have been brewing for a long time. Gregory and I started for more than a year. Gregory wrote the music in a mysteriously short amount of time, but we took a long time for the aural structure and the narrative organization. We worked with a dramaturg for the structure before we filled in the dance and music,” Williams said.

My choreography has contrasting styles; I was influenced by renaissance court dances like Pavanes and Galliard, and even early 17th century alliance of dance with opera that grew out of the court of the Sun King. The Fay characters are inspired by imagery on megalithic monuments and early British art. I use circular and linear patterns, working with spiral formations of the body.  One of the characters is desperately in love with him and they go against the king, so all hell breaks loose.”  He explained.

Fox observes that themes of ‘otherness’ and transformation are the story’s subtext. Williams and Spears have built fantasy homoerotism into that.  “This court dance, for instance, is just a façade. Underneath there is always the wild, emotional side of life. The dramatic arch of the opera is this wild passion that a character develops for another. The deep channel of passion that underlies our lives, whether we can express it or not, is a different story. So the dance bleeds in and out of that untamed emotional states.”

Photo: Drew Santini as Gilfaethwy the False from Wolf-in-Skins

Friday, January 25, 2013 at 7:30PM
Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 2:30PM
Saturday, January 26, 2012 at 7:30PM
Conwell Dance Theater, NE Corner, Broad St. & Montgomery Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19122
Tickets: Click Here



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