Photo Credit: ©Stephanie Berger.
by Alex Strine for The Dance Journal
If you’ve never had the opportunity to attend Andrew’s Video Vault at the Rotunda, I highly recommend the experience. The second Thursday of every month, the program features obscure and/or commercially unavailable films. This month they screened a production of Trisha Brown’s take on Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo.
L’Orfeo is based on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, and hews pretty close to most popular versions of the story. We’re first introduced to a Muse who sets up the story and portends the tragedy to come. Then we leave of Orpheus from the shepherds in town who adore his gifts with music and his talent with the lyre. He is said to be a man who has had struggles in love before meeting Eurydice, the love of his life. They marry, but she is killed by a snake on their wedding day. A grief-stricken Orpheus descends into the Underworld to free his love, and is granted this boon by Hades himself, but on one condition: Orpheus must leave the Underworld without looking back at Eurydice. Of course, he does, and he loses his love forever.
Guest curators Megan Bridge and Peter Price of <fidget> introduced the film, and explained that Brown’s L’Orfeo is interesting because it finds itself fusing ideas from opposite ends of the performance spectrum. Baroque opera in many ways predates the idea of the emoting actor that was later common in opera (think exaggerated hand gestures and expressions), instead focusing on mostly on allegorical stories that featured more abstract narratives.
L’Orfeo is the oldest regularly performed opera, from a time when opera was created out of theories of how stage performances should be. Brown’s work deals primarily with postmodern ideas, namely the breaking down of narrative and emotion into more abstract and physical pieces. This performance then is a strange marriage between ideas with a lot in common despite 400 years of artistic development between them.
Often times operas feature dance as set pieces to break up the sung and acted bits. This is because traditionally the choreographer and the director focus on their own separate tasks; the choreographer works out the movement of dancers and the director works out the movement of the singers and the piece as a whole. Trisha Brown’s L’Orfeo is unique in that the dance is fully integrated into the performance, due to Brown’s position as both choreographer and director. The singers are always engaged in some kind of purposeful movement, from full on dance sequences to the most simplistic of gestures designed to physically externalize the feelings their words are expressing. This saves the production from opera’s stereotypical overacting by forcing the performers to minimize their movements.
L’Orfeo feels about as old as it is, and in many cases could easily be criticized as dated. It’s the type of piece you would watch mostly to remember how it was done in the Baroque days, or to point out its place in the greater theater canon. However Trisha Brown builds from this foundation to create something special through her use of movement and visual space. The opera opens on a muse floating through a large disc, an image that returns periodically and is one of the lasting impressions of the whole work. Similarly, her use of the dancers and singers on stage tends to be more about their physical relation to each other than about the exact movements they’re using individually. Any time the ensemble appears they interact in complex interlocking movements that help give the story a physical presence. The sung story teeters flip flops between on-the-nose narrative and near total abstraction, so Brown’s choreography is a welcome addition that adds some thematic unity to the piece.
If you’re either a fan of opera or Trisha Brown, try and hunt down a copy of L’Orfeo. You’ll find something that manages to feel modern without losing any of the elements that made it popular 400 years ago.
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