Theater archives

In Trapèze, a Choreographer Helps Bring Forgotten Music to Life


One four-year-old is on her hands and knees, as close as she can get to the edge of the platform separating spectators from the five sweating dancers in the center of the draped and mirrored Spiegeltent that Bard Summerscape has imported from Belgium for the third summer in a row. Another little girl sits on her mother’s lap, eyes very wide, as the evil sorcerer and the troupe of tumblers he has turned into animals struggle for the magic wand that will either release them or keep them captive.

That was definitely the high point of Trapèze (or the Misadventure of the Sorceror’s Menagerie), choreographed by Christopher Williams to a quintet that Sergey Prokofiev, the featured composer for this year’s Summerscape, wrote in 1925. The Berlin-based choreographer Boris Georgevitch Romanov had commissioned it for a production by his Russian Romantic Theatre. Although the music was published (minus two additional sections Romanov had requested late in the game), Trapèze and Romanov’s company fell almost instantly into oblivion. The bright score for piano, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and double bass has a circusy twang that fit Romanov’s original theme, and Williams concocted his own scenario to fit what he heard in the music.

In the Spiegeltent, Igor Stravinsky’s 1942 Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant makes a fine overture for what’s to come and sounds entrancingly strange as played by this unusual collection of instruments. A short piece, Musicale: the Bear and the Dove, by Gregory Spears, the ensemble’s pianist, then introduces the characters for Trapèze. The new production, intended to delight both adults and children, has some beguiling effects and ingenious passage of choreography, but it’s dramaturgically confusing, especially since almost all the dancing is on the same level—high-energy and non-stop. The three women seated behind me were shaking their heads as I got up to leave. “Too busy,” they said.

Williams is a gifted choreographer, but Trapèze often gives the impression that he’s vamping to try to fill the music—either by creating a plethora of vigorous dancing or by having the performers do very little (like rolling sadly around) for what seems like a long time. The piece starts off delightfully. The tumblers rush into a circle and call out an image in French: “le mur,” say, or “l’étoile” (the musicians hold up cards with the translation). Then we’re shown whatever the structure is—a temple, a heart, a hula hoop, etc. The performers somersault, too, and jump around in bright patterns.  But right away, there’s something to puzzle over.  If they’re tumblers, why is Jennifer Lafferty billed as “The girl on the flying trapeze” and Williams as “The boy on the flying trapeze,” with Stuart Singer as a strongman and Tara Lorentzen and Kai Kleinbard as fire-eaters? None of them does anything to indicate these different occupations, although when the sorcerer (Aaron Mattocks) changes them into animals that he needs for a touring menagerie, their supposed transformations reflect those jobs we never see. The strongman becomes a bear, the fire-eaters turn into salamanders, and the girl on the trapeze becomes a dove (her partner escapes).

For a few moments, Williams has them attempt one of their old circles, but it’s impossible in their new guise (a touching idea I couldn’t help wishing he’d explored). The subtly metamorphosing costumes (by Williams and Carol Binion) are charming; I especially like the long, green, fabric toes the salamanders acquire. However the dancers don’t perform for the sorcerer’s audience (us, that is) in a way that reflects their new status as animals. They hop and skip and kick their legs as usual, smiling like the troupers that they are. We see only that they are basically unhappy and overworked, and that their evil master makes the dove dance when she’d rather not. The bear gets to be bearish to some clever music with a growly bass (Andante Energico), but it’s difficult to tell that the sorcerer is disciplining him, as the program says, because what the two performers do looks more like a vigorous combative duet.

In the end, Williams reappears to save his friends, sneaking up on the tossing-and-turning sorcerer, while the others stare (not, for some reason, at the sleeping villain but at the spectators). The climactic struggle ensues, but after the dove clobbers the villain and he in return makes her a permanent dove, she’s pulled up on the trapeze (its first appearance), while the others—human again—dance around her doing the now-familiar steps. They leave Williams alone with his former partner, jumping and jumping to reach her as she gradually slumps into death.

There could be an allegory about identity lurking here, but I don’t think so. In this curious fairy tale, some deserving characters get rescued, and the bravest of them all doesn’t.

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