Medieval chancel drama it is not, but with dancers on altars and raised stages moving about in the vast space of the Emmanuel Church sanctuary, something unusual this way will be coming on Saturday night. The Bach of Cantata 201 is not the deadly serious Lutheran usually featured in Emmanuel Music’s service music. Nor is the cynicism of the composer and librettist of Mack the Knife usually a worship feature in this Episcopal church. Liturgical dance rarely figures in this place any more than speaking in tongues.
The forthcoming pairing of Bach’s Contest Between Phoebus and Pan with Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins as illuminated by Urbanity’s ultra-contemporary dance in the periphery augurs a brilliant collision of sacred, profane, lofty, earthy, comic, ironic, sexy and androgynous.
BMInt had lots of questions for Emmanuel Music Artistic Director Ryan Turner and Urbanity Dance’s director Betsi Graves.
FLE: Both pieces, especially the first, Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan, sort of alternate between the ridiculous and the sublime. In a way, the whole program does. Is that part of your construct for this show, the yoking of this seemingly not inevitable double bill? Either one of you…Whose idea this was in the first place?
RT: I approached Bet with the idea of the pieces and she willingly agreed, and I never had the idea of the sublime and the ridiculous as a concept; rather, Bach was clearly writing a faux gallant style as a reaction to criticism that he didn’t know how to write in the new popular style of the day, and that his music was too dense and chromatic and thorny. And so, he writes this piece where he demonstrates he can write in the gallant style, and actually pokes fun at the gallant style for much of it— and the ridiculous nature, I think, that you’re talking about is mostly when he’s poking fun at this gallant style.
And of course there are two different sides of the gallant. He pokes fun at the gallant style with Pan, and with Phoebus, he writes incredibly skillfully in the gallant style. He demonstrates the way the gallant style is of high art, and how it is somewhat rather droll at the same time. And then in 1930, Weill, in response to a question called the Bekenntnis zu Bach or Commitment to Bach, wrote about his indebtedness to Bach and about what is considered ‘high art.’ So that was one of the connections I found between these two pieces, which was not necessarily about the ridiculous or the sublime.
But dancing and jumping as opposed to Verlangenheit was an important distinction, although I suppose it was somewhat satirical. Bach gave both contestants in this pre-Meistersinger good music, and the winds had the last word.
R: Of course.
So what are the main connection that you really had in mind?
R: There are many other connections one can infer; the simple fact is that the Phoebus and Pan stuff consists of various Baroque dance movements, and the Weill was indeed intended to be danced. I think they’re both commentaries on art, they both have parody, not musical parody, but reactionary —Weill speaking out against capitalism. There are satirical Biblical references…I can go on and on about how these things are connected at the surface level.
This is the first we know of a ballet setting, or modern dance setting of the Bach.
And how are you approaching it? Are you going to have people dressed as Greek gods or something more cutting edge?
B: Yeah, so, that’s a choice that I made. The dancers will only really be performing and moving during the arias, and really the overture and the chorus, the beginning and the end—for the rest, it’s really about the singers, and so in a way the dancers are kind of extensions of the music and of the arias. In terms of the costume, we’re using a little bit of a more modern take on the Greek gods, and they will be dressed in really like drapes with some draping that I think would definitely lend to their essence to traditional Greek gods and really highlight the athleticism and just definitely muscles and studying a lot about physical fitness and how that was really related to the lines of the costumes and the draping of the fabric, but it’s definitely more 2016 in that it’s more of an androgynous look.
Are there dancers doubling each singer the way they do in the Weill or are at least a couple of the singers doubled by dancers? So is there a one to one correspondence between singer and dancer?
B: Yes, it’s not quite so literal, but there is a dancer that is an extension of Phoebus and there is a dancer that is an extension of Pan and there is a dancer that is an extension of Momus as well. So those three they do have dancers, more physical representations of the music, and they are draped in Greek outfits, but I’m really interested in playing with gender a little bit so, they’re actually androgynous. They’re androgynously Greek gods, so they’re draped the same regardless of gender and we’re doing their hair and makeup a little bit more androgynous. I’m really interested in breaking those lines a little bit so the dancer who plays Pan is actually a woman and the dancer who plays Phoebus is a man. But I’m hoping with their body structure, and the movement that I have them do, that they’ll look a little more in the middle; they’ll look a little bit more neutral. I’m really interested in playing with that.
Typically Pan isn’t draped at all.
B: That’s true. That is true. I choose not to do that in this church. (Laughter) But that could have been a choice, for sure! Yeah, but I’m hoping all the dancers look the same regardless of what character they’re playing.
So how do we tell them apart?
B: By the movement, and when they’re moving and what’s lighting them and what’s not lighting them.
…and who’s singing at the time they’re moving? So we will be able to figure out which dancer represents which performer even with the androgyny?
B: Sure. Yeah, so they’re actually in different “stages” the dancers will be, and they have a really amazing production company come in and build stages, so there are smaller decks to the right and the left of the altar in front, they’re smaller in dimension, but they’re actually quite high—about 6-1/2 feet high— and that’s where Phoebus and Pan will do their solo work. I think it’s like 5 wide by 7 long, so it’s not a very big space to do a 10-minute solo, but it’s been a fun challenge. But in addition to those two decks which are stage right and stage left there is a larger stage at the very back of the altar that’s like an upstage altar space; there’s a long stage that’s long and narrow. It’s about 35 feet long, actually, that kind of takes over the space on the far side of the church right underneath a lot of the stained glass windows; it becomes a beautiful backdrop with the architecture and art of Emmanuel Church itself. And then we have two roving stages that move up and down the aisles, both longitudinally up and down away from the altar and towards the altar and then latitudinally which is moving across. We also use the balconies as well and we’re lighting those, you know, at moments. And there’s a stage at the very front of the altar, which is like the apron where some dancing happens as well.
You’re not removing pews are you?
B: No, some of the pews have not been sold or are off-limits because stages are up and over them, but in terms of actually taking out the pews, they’re not—the stage is just simply over them.
So this is sort of like the apotheosis of chancel drama then? Since you can’t remove the seats it doesn’t just happen in the middle of the chancel, it’s all around where there aren’t seats and over the seats. Where the orchestra’s going to be then.
R: The orchestra’s in the traditional spot right in the well of the chancel. There’s one moment in the Kurt Weill where there’s the faux Bach chorale that the quartet sings, and they’re going to be singing it from a balcony; and there’s some guitar accompaniment, and it happens from up in the balcony as well. Other than that the orchestra’s always in their sort of traditional spot in the well of the chancel.
How much is the orchestra going to grow between the two pieces?
R: Quite a bit … you know, the Bach is strings, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, 3 trumpets, timpani and continuo, and the Weill we’ve got strings, 6 woodwinds, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, tuba, 2 different percussionists, harp, banjo, piano. I haven’t done the numbers, but I think it’s about 12 more players, just different instrumentation.
Then we have a larger string section for the Weill. The Bach we’re using 4-4-3-2-1 and for the Weill we’re using 6-6-4-3-2.
I gather that some of the stages are small, is there any possibility of leaping from stage to stage?
B: Not really—the stages are so far spread out; there’s one moment where the roving stage can be connected to the long stage, but in general the dancers will be climbing down moving through the aisle. So it becomes pretty immersive and then jumping back on another stage.
Now you’re not reversing the sexes of the singers for of Phoebus and Pan to women are you?
R: You have to find out, Lee! I’m not gonna tell you that!
R: Actually, Phoebus is Dana Whiteside, Pan is David Kravitz.
They would probably not be pleased to be reversed in that way. Now are any of the same singers going to be used in the Weill?
R: Frank Kelley, Matt Anderson, Dana Whiteside and David Kravitz, are the quartet in the Weill and then they’re the four male singers in the Bach.
So who is going to be Anna?
R: Sung Anna, Anna 1 is Lynn Torgove and the Anna 2 is a Dancer Meg Anderson.
Do they look alike as did Lotte Lenya did and the first dancer who doubled her?
B: Yeah, I think they do.
R: They do.
B: I mean, we didn’t necessarily plan for it, but honestly, when I met Lynn, out of all the dancers, I have 10 dancers, I felt like I couldn’t have chosen the one. There are so many different versions and ideas of what Anna could be, but I think it’s kind of cool that separately both dancer Anna “Meg” and singer Anna “Lynn” came up with this idea which is that they’re really the same person, but that Lynn is kind of looking back on her life as Meg. It changes, because Lynn is older than Meg, so that is kind of the story that they’re going with, and they came up with that idea separately, and then we started to talk about it and realized that they were actually thinking along the same lines.
But the dancers don’t speak, do they?
B: There are a few lines. Maybe like 5 or 6 lines, but pretty sparingly.
Paint us a picture of what that production will look like.
B: It’s following one story from top to bottom; we don’t have these more inserted recits. The Weill is painting the story with the singer and dancer Anna, and then the male quartet who represents the family, really those are the dancers; we don’t have any dancers or any kind of extensions for them, so the other nine dancers that I have are really creating the atmosphere, the environment for each of the cities that we travel to and, you know, really my thought was since it is an immersive experience and since we are in the church is to really allow the dancer Meg to go on this journey so she is travelling and we have this (track) for her where she leaves the main stage that is altered and represents (Anna) and represents home and she’s carried off by some dancers to one of the roving stages and she goes on this path and then the moment she has with Lynn, Lynn is staged on the altar stage, so she connects back as a sister and they make this connection that is over 50 feet at that time throughout the church, but Lynn is still staying with the orchestra – she’s back home looking at her. Sister, or maybe it’s an extension of her past self perhaps, and Meg is travelling all over the church. Meg travels on the roving stages, she travels on the long stage, you really never know as an audience member where she’s going to pop up, and the dancers around her create the environment, you don’t really know where they’re popping up, you know, where really, I can kind of play off how different each track is going from something that’s this beautiful a capella, funny quartet, to something that’s foxtrot, moving to something that’s a waltz or something that’s a march – we’re really trying to create a dancers’ environment that will reflect not only the sin in the city we’re dealing with, but also just add another layer, add some color to the music itself.
Can you describe the movement vocabulary?
B: I tend to choreograph very much to, you guessed it, yes, it is modern dance, but it really does vary quite a bit so, let’s say the first sin that we have is ‘Sloth’, and it is being sung in English and the dancers come in and they’re really staying in a swaying rhythm, they’re swaying with their bodies and staying on the beat of music in that rhythm, and the male quartet starts singing and they’re singing about how lazy the dancer Anna is and the other dancers actually make a couch for the dancer Anna to sit on, and then they make a chair and then the chair starts going wild a little bit crazy, and then the dancer Anna then actually goes to each of her family members, the male quartet’s always starting with the mother, you know, being stern and has a forewarning, you’re too lazy—what are we going to do with you? And she interacts with each of them at the end of ‘Sloth’ she is lifted up toward the ceiling which was actually quite beautiful today. And anytime we have, you know, there are a few motifs that we’re playing with. One is the quartet coming in with this really, like ‘hits my bones in a way when it comes in,’ the prayer that they keep coming back to. The dancer Anna always finds that movement, almost as if she’s being struck from her heart, and her chest goes up toward the ceiling, so sometimes that’s being lifted up, sometimes she’s in a lunge, but anytime that happens, it’s like her chest is being propelled to the ceiling and being propelled back home. In terms of my movement vocabulary, if you have a classical background, I worked at Boston Ballet for 10 years, but I also danced professionally as a modern dancer, so how the movement gets grounded on the floor they roll around on the different stages, they jump up and down, it’s very athletic. I have a couple of dancers that used to be break-dancers before they got into dance, so there are moments that you have pop-and-lock to Weill, pop-and-lock to Bach, but it’s actually very musical. I would say the one thing that differentiates me from other choreographers is that I really try to embody the music, and simply listening to the rhythms and the melodies, but it’s also the quality of the singing. Sometimes the dancers’ bodies are really referencing the instruments, and maybe it’s a certain instrument, and other times they’re really referencing the singers and the lyrics.
Well let me get back to Ryan on the qualities of the singing. Lotte Lenya was the 1920’s equivalent of a cross-over artist, and the role has been sung by opera singers as well as pop singers, and even within those categories there’s a tremendous range of crooning and belting and singing with operatic support, and how is Lynn going to deal with all those various demands and traditions?
R: Yes. (laughter) I’d say that she is responding to the text and to the moment. I can tell you that one of the most compelling qualities I think about Lynn’s singing is that it defies qualification as a soprano, as a mezzo, but also still has the range of a soprano, is comfortable doing theater, comfortable doing classical, I think actually a perfect voice for it. And there’s is a rawness and also lyricism at the same time, and I think she moves seamless in and out of what one might identify as a certain style, but I think it’s all drawn from the text.
So is she going to sound like a crooning pop singer at times, or is she always going to sound like Lynn?
R: I think you’d classify it as that way. It’s going to be honest.
R: That’s a fantastic question. I have my back to them much of the time There’s this one platform that’s up on the altar where there’s literally going to be dancing on the altar. Sometimes you’ll know where to look, and other times you’ll have to make a decision. There are moments where some people may not see what’s happening, but they will have an aural feast. Other times it will be a visual feast, and you won’t be able to hear things. The idea is that everyone will have moments of transcendence, and they may not be the same for everyone. It’s just like any time you do anything in the round, not everybody’s going to see every moment but will hear every moment and will have something to look at.
B: Yes, exactly. And I think that the lights will really help. Because the lights will really be dark, unless a certain scene is being lit. Yes, there will be moments where I think people will have to turn their heads to see something, you know, I think that heads will probably be turning right or left. I’m hoping that in those pews that there will also be moments I think people will be shifting, which is interesting because it requires the audience to be active to a certain point, but it’s definitely a choice that I made to try to take people into a different world, to try to create an experience and having experience as an audience member, and having produced work in the round before, I noticed there will be moments that feel incredibly magical because there’s a dancer right next to you doing something, and like talk to your friend that was on the opposite side of the church, and saying did you experience that moment? No, but did you experience another moment? And so there will be moments that will be moments that are incredibly personal on the side of magic almost, and there will be other moments where I can’t see something as well as I would like to, and I know that’s sometimes frustrating for an audience that’s not used to being in the round for something like this. But I’m hoping that our audience can go in with a bit of an open mind and try to be present and experience the moments that they can, and I really as a choreographer try to make sure that no matter where people are seated in terms of their sightlines that there’s something that they can watch.
And will there be any video of the performance so that you can put something two-dimensional together later?
B: It’s a very good question. We haven’t. We will have a video artist coming in and recording the dress rehearsal, but I don’t think it will be something that say would really be sold. I don’t think it will be a quality like that, it’s more just so we’ll have a record. But it’s a really interesting idea.
It sounds like it could be a great music video.
B: Yeah, I agree. I think it could be really amazing…especially in this church…
I assume they’re going to remove the host from the tabernacle before people are dancing on the altar?
R: Actually yes. The altar is movable so the altar’s been removed and the altar is filled in with a platform.
Will you have swiveling chairs or resident chiropractors for neck straightening?
B: We could have a masseuse at every pew.
I’m really looking forward to this because I produced Phoebus and Pan when I was in high school, and I’ve been waiting for many, many years to see this in a theatrical context.
Then there is also something to be said about unconventional subjects for choreography. I did see in Salzburg a ballet of the Matthew Passion that was amazing, and I’ve always wanted to see Elijah done as an opera or a ballet because it’s got such a narrative quality, so maybe this is a rehearsal for those two in the years to come?
R: Perhaps—we’ll see. And one other thing, Lee, I’m not sure if you know, just information-wise, Betsi mentioned this, but, the Weill is sung in English, which is the translation that Weill had Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden write. When Weill came to America, he wanted it to be accessible and disseminated and performed in America, so he had Auden and Kallman write a translation in English. And then for the Bach, I think you’ll appreciate this, we’re doing the chorus and the arias in German, but the recitatives are in English in a translation by none other than Sheldon Harnick of Fiddler on the Roof fame.
He did it in 1988 for the Bach Aria group with Yehudi Weiner on keyboard and Kendra Colton as the soprano soloist did this English translation at SUNY Stonybrook. One performance, and it’s never been done since. And Yehudi Weiner had the translation, so I got a hold of it from him, and so we’re doing the recits that way and the arias are in German. And given the fact the lighting will be such that the audience will not be able, even if we put a translation, they wouldn’t be able to see it, and I think Betsi’s choreography tells the story through the dance, so the arias in German aren’t necessarily needing to be translated, but we will have a little synopsis in the program. Other that, the audience should not need to look at their programs.
Will there be two performances?
R: Unfortunately it’s only one…or maybe fortunately.
Good luck getting the sanctuary ready for church the next morning!
Collaboration with Urbanity Dance, Betsi Graves, Director
Saturday, April 9, 2016 at 7:30 PM
Emmanuel Church, Boston
Bach: The Contest between Phoebus and Pan, BWV201
Momus Susan Consoli, soprano & Jamie Lovell, dancer
Mercury Krista River, alto
Midas Frank Kelley, tenor
Timolus Matthew Anderson, tenor
Phoebus Dana Whiteside, baritone & Jacob Regan, dancer
Pan David Kravitz, baritone & Haley Day, dancer
At 6:15 PM there will be a pre-concert talk by Ryan Turner and Betsi Graves that will discuss in detail the elements of the production and how they relate to the piece and the dancers, as well as Bach’s influence on Kurt Weill.
Tickets General $30, 2nd Tier $60; 1st Tier $95, Patron $150, Student $10