Look Back!

Choreographers Raid the Past

 L'Orfeo must have sounded like this in 1607. Brasses call from the balcony and are answered in the pit, where René Jacobs conducts his baroque ensemble, Concerto Vocale, in Claudio Monteverdi's opera. "I am Music," sings Graciela Oddone, praising the demigod who charmed Hades with his lyre. But at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, no curtains part to reveal a soprano in 17th-century silks. Instead, Oddone's voice floats up from the pit while above her, in a blue circle of sky that pierces the black frontcloth, a double—dancer Katrina Thompson—somersaults, sails joyously out of sight, and tumbles back again. Her two supporting wires barely visible, the track invisible, this spirit seems to fly in the empyrean space of Roland Aeschlimann's set, buoyed only by the beauty of song.

Directing her first opera, choreographer Trisha Brown miraculously shades the boundaries between singing and dancing. All ensemble performers are barefoot and dressed in loosely cut white suits. Celebrating the nuptials of Orfeo and Euridice, they form lines that tilt, undulate, dissolve, and loop into new patterns with the illogical logic of fate. Dancers frisk in; singers race away. The dancers' swinging legs and spurting jumps bubble like the music's ornamentation; wound about Orfeo, they enlarge his body like a great cloak. When six singers and a dancer tangle together, the dancer (Stanford Makishi) is singing. Fine baritone Simon Keenlyside leaps from the wings into a cluster of dancers as if shot into the wedding-morning air.

Transformed by Brown's modernist sensibility, motion is loosened from literal narrative to reflect the music's fluidity (this from an artist whose dances had no music until the 1980s). The performers sometimes strike mysterious, almost awkward poses that look familiar—say, a man bent for ward holding something—but these allude more to the codified gestures of baroque singers than to the text. Formal approach notwithstanding, Brown presses out the emotions of the narrative. In one coup de théâtre, the unhappy messenger who brings the news of Euridice's death plunges suddenly into dark arms reaching up from the orchestra pit.

Aeschlimann's stunning scenic effects help generate drama. When Orfeo, accompanied by La Speranza (counter tenor Christophe Laporte), journeys toward the Underworld to reclaim Euridice (Patricia Biccire), a side wall travels across the stage, reducing the sunny white space and opening up a black, nearly lightless, cavern. It's a shock when a glow reveals Plutone (Stephen Milling) and Proserpina (Marissa Martins), dressed like fantastic oriental potentates, sitting on the curving rim of a crimson disk, edging away from each other until Orfeo's love reawakens their own. Mediating Apollo (Pale Knudsen) sings pinned to a golden sun.

The designer's work is as pure as Brown's. Through their vision and the splendid musicianship of Jacobs, the singers, and the instrumentalists, Monteverdi's beautiful, sometimes austere music ravishes the soul in entirely new ways. (Brown's approach to this opera makes me eager to see her first work to a jazz score; she premieres a collaboration with trumpeter David Douglas at Jacob's Pillow July 7 through 11 and at Lincoln Center Out of Doors August 13.)

Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer bring the past to life in another way. Poring over pictures and written ac counts of vanished ballets from the early 20th century, tracking down survivors, filling in the blanks with educated guesses, they've reconstructed such landmark works as Nijinsky's Rite of Spring and Balanchine's Cotillon. The Swedish Ballet brought to Washington's Kennedy Center the couple's recent stagings of Within the Quota, Dervishes, and Skating Rink—all composed by Jean Börlin for Rolf De Maré's short-lived (1920–1925) challenge to Serge Diaghilev's monopoly on modernism.

To varying degrees, the three works share a spareness and clarity of design; gestures and action are simplified, abstracted. There is no naturalistic hubbub. In Within the Quota, one dancer plays several intermediary roles—a very modern device. The characters in this ballet are stereo types, almost cartoons, as if they'd stepped from the headlines of the newspaper blowup Gerald Murphy de signed as a backdrop. In this succinct rags-to-riches tale, set to Cole Porter's first—and very atmospheric—orchestral commission, a Swedish immigrant in too-tight clothes meets a rich deb, a "jazz baby," a black hoofer, a cowboy, and Mary Pickford. A cameraman films his eager attempts to join them. In the end, white-suited, he sort of turns into Douglas Fairbanks.

Skating Rink, with its stunning geometrical arrangements of color and design by Fernand Léger and a score by Arthur Honegger, is a deeper ballet. The dancers mimic roller-skating almost numbly. Hordes of humanity, we're meant to think, circle endlessly. Despite their differences—sailor, artist, and factory girls, expert skaters and beginners—their shifting patterns are controlled by fate. In the odd and beautiful symmetries of Dervishes, a spiritual leader (Göran Svalberg in Börlin's role) and four disciples, their long coats belling out, spin to the lush music of Aleksandr Glazunov. The latter ballet was far less well documented than Skating Rink. Hodson and Archer designed a set and figured out how to dress the soldiers (described in an early review as aping the dervishes). In their version, the soldiers are drawn into the ecstatic rite.

A little more direction might clarify the narratives. It's difficult at first to understand the principal characters in Rink: a Madman/Poet, a woman mesmerized by him, and a man who wants her. Because of the formalism of Dervishes, we don't fully grasp the soldiers' changing attitudes. But Hodson and Archer's research—unfailingly scrupulous, tasteful, and sensitive—produces splendid results.

This fascinating evening also features a more fanciful re-envisioning of Börlin's El Greco by Ivo Cramér. Georges Mouveau's backdrop incorporates motifs from El Greco's paintings, and Cramer's mimed scenes, like Börlin's, display their characters—monks, noble men, beggars, spiritual women—stirring the dramatically sensitive dancers into anguished plastiques of despair and redemption, buffeted by thunderous El Greco skies.

Martha@Mother serves up the past with irony, in the form of host Richard Move's dead-on parodies of Martha Graham and her oeuvre. Without using actual Graham choreography, Move evokes it, and his impersonations are both sophisticated and naughtily affectionate. On the sea son's last program, Douglas Nielsen performs a charming restaging (on very skimpy evidence) by Peter Hamilton of a scene from Charles Weidman's 1939 solo On My Mother's Side, whose sharp-edged comedy is not unlike that of Börlin's Within the Quota.

But the excellent bill—solos choreographed by Crutch Master, Stephen Petronio, and Viola Farber (danced by Nielsen) and a brief, witty quartet by Thomas Caley and Petter Jacobsson—features something new: an utterly bizarre and compelling solo, The Flight, by Mark Morris. Bare under a nightshirt, Morris dances and mimes a dream tale by somniloquist Dion McGregor (heard on tape) about an ill-starred balloon trip to the moon by specially chosen young boys and a fulsome person-in-charge. The boys are from different countries, so Morris gives us scraps of national dances, signifying gestures (the finger in the dike for Holland), and his nutty character's prejudices (Africa gets short shrift). While urging his passengers to take their food pills and relax, Morris deftly creates the illusion of floating in the increasingly—disturbingly—lunatic space of this man's head. As for Move, Phaedra lived and lusted gloriously, a six-foot-three man as a charismatic woman dancer reinventing via Jung a mythological Greek. That's a time trip!

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