by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Choreographer Seán Curran has been running his New York based Seán Curran Company since 1997 and as successful has they have been, Curran has had to supplement his company’s coffers working in other areas. In recent years, he has divided his creative time in the world of opera as both choreographer and stage director.
Curran was shuttling between New York and Philly much of the winter, as choreographer for Opera Philadelphia’s production of Oscar, creating the non-singing all dancing role of Bosie, Oscar Wilde’s notorious lover. This month, Curran has been both directing and choreographing The Philadelphia Singers’ East Coast Premiere of The Radio Hour composed by Jake Heggie- story and libretto by Gene Scheer.
The one act opera is choral fantasy about a woman who escapes loneliness and despair acting out songs she hears on her 30s era radio. Musical Director David Hayes has paired it with Menotti’s ‘The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore’ for program called Myths and Magic: The Voice of Storytelling.
At a full rehearsal last week at the Friends Center on Cherry St., Curran talked about the opera. He said the piece was devised originally for Nora to be acted rather than danced. “I’m making it a more dance and character driven piece,” Curran said.
In its previous production, a theater actress was cast as Nora, but Curran wanted “a dancer first, who could act. Dancing is an abstract visual language, in dance, we’re always doing implied narratives. I want to be a diplomat for contemporary dance because so many people are convinced they won’t understand it.”
“Curran describes Heggie’s music as “a beautiful motor for dancing , very strange music in that it is familiar and also edgy and new. This is more like a staged choral opera, a strange hybrid. Nora is like Dorothy Gale or Alice in Wonderland. I have a identification with Nora- middle aged, alone, fills her life with work,“ Curran half-joked “Defining the difference between loneliness and solitude. Something I’ve wrestled with.”
Elizabeth Coker, dancer and co-artistic director at Seán Curran Company will dance Nora. Coker said that even though the script describes Nora as middle age “I’m going to play her as my age, 33, my thought behind that is that these feelings are universal at different times in their life. She is single, she has this ex-lover she alludes to, she’s self-isolating and she finds a way out, “Coker observes.
Curran said he wanted to give the opera “this dream logic, it starts with static and then she tunes into these different songs, Nora can time-travel to a Spanish ballade, or a swing number, or ballet music, or hip-hop and react to old style ads as she moves the dial around,” he explained.
In addition to making elegant, harried or comic moves for Nora in her fantasy dances, Curran involves the full chorus in different ways to tell Nora’s story. It’s tricky to move singers who are not used to both moving and singing onstage, let alone executing more complex choreography, some even moving in and out of Nora‘s scenes. The Philadelphia Singers couldn’t have been more invested in making it work. They asked questions about timing vis-à-vis the score, gestural nuances and all along having lots of fun with it.
At one point Curran told them “You have that beautiful Philadelphia Singers projection and now I need some dance projection here too. It starts with static from the radio, but will be clear when we get there in the score. Nice Everybody. Let’s do the hip-hop-swing part.”
In fact they were game to try anything Curran asked of them, as one point Curran demonstrated a gyro-hip move “Yes, shake your naughty bits, but not too much… that’s another show.”
It is a very vibrant time for dance in opera as composers, librettists and directors want dance to be a more integrated story element rather than a contrived divertissement or scene decoration. “Ten years ago if someone told me I’d be directing opera I wouldn’t have believed it. “
Curran’s success in opera was born out of necessity. “Your identity changes especially when you get older if you’re a dancer. I still dance and intend to perform at 53. Curran was choreographer for many productions at New York City Opera (which folded last year) and he works regularly with St. Louis Opera and Santa Fe opera.
Curran continues to be expanding his company’s reach. His troupe of ten enjoys international success and in 2012 they were on US state department sponsored cultural ambassadors in Asia. but Curran acknowledges that they still struggle.
“(Our) Touring is way down, we have one coming up, but right now my dancers are laid off until July, unfortunately,” he said “I have to things like this to make the money to have a dance company. I can’t do it forever. The company is run basically on my earned income, but I need and want and love to make dances . I want to have a group that have a common language. So I’m willing to pay for it.”
SCCO will be performing at the Next Wave Festival at BAM in October 2015 “it feels like a miracle. It’s a piece called ‘Dream’d in a Dream.’ The work is a collaboration between the Seán Curran Company and traditional Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus, whose repertory encompasses a unique form of Kyrgyz mountain music rarely heard in western concert settings.
Myths and Magic: The Voice of Storytelling
March 27-28 @7:30pm
Temple Performing Arts Center
1837 N. Broad St., Philadelphia, PA 19122
***Photo credit: Lewis Whittington