writers on dancing


Music for the Gods

"Orpheus and Eurydice"
Ricky Ian Gordon, Composer and Libretto
Doug Varone, Director and Choreographer
Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall
Lincoln Center
New York, New York
October 7, 2005

By Nancy Dalva
copyright ©2005 by Nancy Dalva  

The New Visions world premiere production of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” under the auspices of Lincoln Center presents Great Performers & American Songbook, New Visions, did not add up to much as a production, but some of its disparate elements were excellent. If the intent of this affair—a song cycle of just over an hour, with the musicians incorporated into the choreography, inside a moveable set—was synthesis, it missed its mark, instead enhancing the notion, as these things usually do, that this is not merely an elusive goal, but probably a bad idea in the first place. Still, as a platform for the articulate pianism and masterful sang froid of the pianist Melvin Chen, it was entertaining. And as a showcase for the abundant vocal and physical charms of the soprano Elizabeth Futral, it was, as they say, a slam-dunk.

The concept here was reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s silky approach to Schubert’s “Wintereise.” A song cycle, a pianist, a singer moving among dancers. Here, the score for clarinet, piano, and soprano. The clarinetist Todd Palmer, who commissioned the music, “sings” the role of Orpheus on his instrument. (This instrument-as-character approach repeatedly reminded me of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”), Futral plays Eurydice, while singing a narrative about herself. The music is tuneful (you hear just a hint of Richard Rodgers in the lilting vocals, so that you long to hear Futral sing “When I Marry Mister Snow”). The lyrics are awful. Even Futral’s vocal gorgeousness cannot overcome lines like “Orpheus played his pipe/Music, like a cool blue stripe,” or “She loved to garden/and decorate/ Upon the entrance gate filigree/patiently/she wove ivy/strewn with roses/and morning glories/which seemed to sing, ‘hello!”/ even in the winter snow. “ The story seems to be set somewhere in rural England, for some reason, or maybe in a Connecticut garden in about 1930, and I have no doubt the composer Ricky Ian Gordon has put personal feeling and history into it, and has read poetry. I have no doubt about the former because he wrote the lyrics while his partner was dying of AIDS, and of the latter because, to my ear, there are certain echoes of William Carlos Williams, Wordsworth, and even the last line of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” (“And for a time they were so happy....”

All of this came to Doug Varone ready-made. The music and the principals, the lyrics. To them he adds his company of eight, “Doug Varone and Dancers,” attired in a cross between sacred attire and bathrobes and pajamas (brown over white, possibly muslin), well suited to a group representing alternately a Greek chorus and the dead, drifting around in an underworld strangely furnished with white dining table chairs. These are moved all around (they are even hoisted into the air on wires at one point) to represent this and that, as are the dancers. Sometimes they depict imagery in the lyrics, sometimes they support Orpheus and Eurydice so that they can sing while up in the air, and collapse, and so forth. At one point, Futral sings supine, in what gynecologists call the “lithotomy position,” facing upstage with her legs folded over a chair seat, so that her yellow-and-orange-I-am-springtime-dress rides up around her waist, and her enviable, milk white thighs are exposed. (She is a very good sport.) For his prone moment, Todd Palmer, strangely attired in blue pants and top covered with a lizard green blazer, has to lie flat on his back and writhe around being symbolically torn to pieces while playing his instrument. While Futral is actually a graceful natural mover (with her long, raven ringlets, she’d be good in Isadora dances), Palmer is not. He’s stiff, his neck is short, and he looks more like a satyr with a pan pipe and a blonde buzz cut than a musician so soulful he can move the gods to pity. The movement is that swoopy, blendy, multi-leveled thing Varone does so well, and in keeping with the choreography he makes for the company when they are not in an opera.

The enterprise transpires in a malfunctioning white gauze box of a set, with the front side rising at the beginning of the piece and–on one occasion reported by John Rockwell in The New York Times, and one seen by me–crashing down into the remaining sides and bulging towards the house upon its return near the piece’s conclusion. (A crash in the wings indicated further tech issues.) There is a door in the back. Dominating the scene is a white platform on wheels, on it a white grand piano and matching bench. This is Melvin Chen’s domain. In his robe and pajamas, marvelously tall, he sat at his instrument and played, even when the dancers wheeled him around the stage, and spun him in a circle. When the dishy Futral, pulled back into the underworld, scooted on her back under the front of the piano to emerge behind his bench, he didn’t bat an eye. Thus he not only played the score, but set the tone. There wasn’t a church giggle in the house. Nonetheless, not Chen, not Futral, not Palmer, not Ricky Ian Gordon, nor Doug Varone convinced me that there were not, lurking inside this production, two possibilities for a better show. The first would have been a nice concert, with the soprano, pianist, and clarinetist in nice evening clothes. The second would have been a dance, with Varone’s company on stage, and the musicians in the pit. Synthesis, unsuccessful.

Volume 3, No. 37
October 10, 2005
copyright ©2005 Nancy Dalva



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Christopher Correa
Clare Croft
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Naima Prevots
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan
last updated on October 10, 2005