Musicians in Motion
Josef AstorThe soprano Elizabeth Futral, as Euridice, and members of the Doug Varone and Dancers company in Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle "Orpheus and Euridice." The clarinetist Todd Palmer is at right.
Todd Palmer never expected to be playing the clarinet barefoot, embedded in a crowd of barefoot dancers. Elizabeth Futral never thought she would be singing while hoisted shoulder-high by four men. And Melvin Chen never envisioned himself gliding around the stage on a wheeled platform seated at a Liberace-white Steinway. But Doug Varone saw just such images when he heard a CD of Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle "Orpheus and Euridice," and so will the audience at Lincoln Center's American Songbook series on Wednesday at Rose Hall.
With those three musicians and eight dancers from Mr. Varone's company moving sometimes in tandem, sometimes in opposition, "Orpheus and Euridice" is choreographed from beginning to end. Mr. Varone has inserted dance moments even when Mr. Gordon's flowing, open-ended music pauses for breath. At one point, when the tempo shifts, Mr. Varone has the dancers cluster around the piano and riffle through the pages of Mr. Chen's score, creating a visual impetus for the music's acceleration. After a recent run-through of the first act, Mr. Varone called the dancers back into their positions to design a silent final tableau, "to put a period there," he said.
Mr. Varone, who is best-known for his emotionally and technically complex duets, has moved musicians around a stage before. He has woven his dancers into productions at the Metropolitan Opera and Opera Colorado, among others. But never before have musicians been so thoroughly integrated into his dance. "Elizabeth and Todd are enormously physical animals," he said. He added that even his dancers are impressed: "They said, 'They're the best we've ever worked with.' "
Dance was not on Mr. Gordon's mind when he wrote "Orpheus and Euridice" in 1995. His lover, a young writer named Jeffrey Michael Grossi, was ill and would die a year later of AIDS.
Mr. Palmer, a concert clarinetist who has often performed Schubert's "Shepherd on the Rock" with stellar sopranos, asked Mr. Gordon to compose something short for clarinet, piano and soprano to add to the "Shepherd" programs. "I needed the money," Mr. Gordon said, "but I just couldn't come up with a story." Then, at 4 one morning - "It's become legendary," he said - the complete "Orpheus and Euridice" libretto, with its tantalizing promise of a beloved's return from the dead, popped into his head. It wasn't the Gluck or the Monteverdi opera, or the score Stravinsky wrote for Balanchine, or any of the other musical treatments of the myth that inspired him. It was Marcel Camus's 1959 film, "Black Orpheus." "I wanted to write my version of that movie," he said. "Act I was the birth of love, Act II was the stealing away of that gift."
Recalling the bitterness that informed the piece's creation, Mr. Gordon said he felt a little like Orpheus, transforming overwhelming sorrow into music. "But it's funny," he said. "You talk about these things, but in a way they're irrelevant. 'Orpheus' no longer belongs to me. It can't be about my loss. You write it and you give it away. You say to Doug and Todd and Elizabeth and the dancers, 'Make it yours.' "
Mr. Gordon, who wrote the score for the Off Broadway show "My Life With Albertine," could not turn it over immediately. Too long for Mr. Palmer's Schubert performances, it became homeless. "If you write a 10-minute piece," Mr. Gordon said, "a singer will say, 'Sure, I'll learn this.' But 60 minutes! It just gathered dust. There was no engine behind it." A semistaged performance at Cooper Union in 2001 went so unnoticed, he added, "it felt like a workshop."
Meanwhile, Mr. Gordon's sense of the theatrical possibilities for "Orpheus" began to widen when he saw Trisha Brown's staging of Schubert's "Winterreise" for the English baritone Simon Keenlyside. And after he saw Mr. Varone's darkly beautiful 2002 dance-theater piece about an insular backwoods community, "The Bottomland," he sent Mr. Varone a recording of the Cooper Union "Orpheus."
For Mr. Varone, the appeal of "Orpheus and Euridice" lay in its emotions. "If we're lucky," he said, "we all fall in love. And at some point, we know we'll have to let it go." And he was eager to work with Ms. Futral, Mr. Palmer and Mr. Chen: "I live for possibilities like this - to blur the line between art forms."
Such blurring was perhaps a more pleasing prospect for him than it was for the musicians. But Ms. Futral gamely insisted that it wasn't scary.
"It was challenging," she said. "It's fun. And now that I'm accustomed to the movement, it's energizing my singing, not conflicting with it."
Ms. Futral said she had been amazed at how naturally she and Mr. Palmer blended into the dance company. "It all starts with Doug," she said, "but it goes through all of them. They've been so accepting of who we are, our bodies, our limitations and our possibilities. When we walked into the room, nobody said, 'Oh, God, what are we going to do with them?' "
The result, she said, is absolute trust: she will do whatever Mr. Varone asks of her. He, in turn, knows he has to be careful. "I'll never ask them to do anything that compromises their ability to do the music," he said. "If someone says, 'I can't do that note and that move,' I have to listen."
- Sylvaine Gold, The New York Times, 2 Oct 2005