Doctor Atomic, Trumpism, Walking and Other Movement

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal | photo credit Karli Cadel

In the age of Trumpism, where nuclear stockpiles take precedence over arts funding, the Curtis Opera Theatre’s production of Doctor Atomic is an all to harrowing reminder of our entry in to the nuclear age.  Accompanied by Curtis Symphony Orchestra under Timothy Myers, we are witness to the dawn of the nuclear age as scientists gather at Los Alamos to prepare to test the first atomic bomb while pondering the massive destructive power of the force they will soon unleash.

While not originally intending to review this performance, I became intrigued with the intricate and expressive movements of the actors under the stage direction of R.B. Schlather.  No choreographer was engaged for this performance.  R.B. Schlather went on to explain,”To me, staging is highly physical and is about getting performers to express the emotional worlds of their characterizations through voice, text, and body. So yes, I worked collaboratively with all the performers to get out of them the kind of movement I felt expressed the emotional life of these people in space.”

This was most evident in the performance by Jonathan McCullough who brilliantly played the character of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.  The opening of Doctor Atomic featured a purely movement based scene in which McCullough seemed to blend modern dance with a bit of Horton technique, and then thrown in for good measure an occasional breaking and hip hop move as seen with the shoulder stand in the photo accompanying this article. With out the utterance of a single operatic note, we are witness to the political and moral quandary faced by Oppenheimer upon which composer, John Adams set his score with libretto by Peter Sellars.  The sequence of repeated movements, broken by the frenetic energy of McCullough gave us brief but poignant insights into the fear of acquiring such God-like and destructive power.

The use of walking is a staple in modern dance. Renowned choreographer, Paul Taylor best explained, “walking is the most revealing. A walk is like a fingerprint. No two people walk the same.”  In Doctor Atomic, R.B. Schlather provided a most dramatic use of walking throughout the production and even more effectively during the later part of the second act. His use of continual and methodical walking, intricate spacing, selective grouping of performers, entrances and exits from the walk, created both high drama as well as gave pause to elicit emotions from the audience, left to nervously wait the countdown to detonation.

I have also attended multiple professional dance performances in which movement was choreographed to mimic (literal or otherwise) spoken text.  Here again, in R.B. Schlather’s direction of the entire cast in the use of gesture, full body movements and facial micro-expressions was detailed, effective and cerebral.  While the opera was in English, with projected subtitles, it was the use of this unspoken movement that conveyed so much more during this production. Once again McCullough shined in conveying to us the complex genius of Oppenheimer as a maddening bundle of contradictions, that ultimately led to his nervous breakdown.  While a bit more exaggerated in body language, Tyler Zimmerman as physicist, Edward Teller and even Evan LeRoy Johnson as physicist, Robert Wilson, gave stunning portrayals of their character representations.

This performance by Curtis elevated opera by creating synergies among vocal performance, character development, facial expression, and movement on the stage.  With the final scene, the audience is left in silence to bear witness to the inevitable.  All I can think about as the stage goes to black is the utter madness of our actions and that we have not yet learned from our own history.

Curtis Opera Theatre & Curtis Symphony Ochestra, Doctor Atomic, March 4, 2017 at the Kimmel Center.

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