writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Drama, Dancing and Music

Arts United of Washington
Theatre on the Run
Arlington, Virginia
Saturday, February 14, 2004 at 7:30 PM

by George Jackson

Jean Racine's tragedy Phedre opens on sexual passions and power plays at high pitch among its protagonists. Other than variations and complications of these themes, it is hard to imagine that the play has anywhere left to go. But build it does to a seaquake of a climax that leaves in its wake not just death but a testament to the Olympian gods' jealousy of mortal humanity. Arts United of Washington, a brand new organization of limited means but much imagination, took on this 17th Century classical French drama's challenges—the grand oratory, the nakedness of the characters' emotions—and gave audiences a winning three hours of theater.

The core of the story is well known. Phedre lusts for her stepson, Hippolytus, who has multiple charms but is chaste. That just about sufficed for the best known version in America, Martha Graham's dance drama that is still (theoretically) in repertory. Graham showed the public precisely how Phedre beheld Hippolytus. The shutters of a window are opened, the midportion first, and framed for all to see was a Phidian torso (Paul Taylor's) with an illuminated crotch. In 1962's New York, this wasn't censored (Taylor wore a thin bathing suit) but it did titillate and shock. Graham as Phedre was her usual, hysterical, heroic self. Other authors, from playwright Euripides (428 BC) through choreographers Angiolini (1789) and Didelot (1825) and several novelists to scenarist Jean Cocteau (1950 for Serge Lifar's ballet with Toumanova and himself), have involved other specifics in relating the action. Racine (1670s) added the subplot of Hippolytus, after all, learning what desire is. He becomes infatuated—mutually so—with the girl Aricia, who is not only a prisoner-ward of his father, King Theseus, but the last survivor in the family line of a former king. Aricia thus has a claim to Theseus' throne rivaling that of Hippolytus and Phedre's still very young children. Theseus' absence during the first half of the play—he has been on a long voyage and there are rumors of his death—serves to unleash Phedre's, Hippolytus' and Aricia's desires to love and to rule.

A major asset of Arts United of Washington's production is a new translation of Racine's text by Britain's poet laureate, Ted Hughes. It cuts to the bone, yet is rich. Compared to the Harvard Classics' version by R.B. Boswell, Hughes' English is remarkably agile. AUW's director, Leighann Niles DeLorenzo and choreographer Melissa Saint Amour have added characters to the cast. There are Racine's four principals—Phedre, Theseus, Hippolytus and Aricia—plus his four attendant figures who function like Greek choruses and in some instances also display bits of individual personality. New are three dancers: Venus, who represents the jealous gods, and Hippolytus' and Aricia's Shadows, who embody the young lovers' uninhibited essences. Choreography interacts subtly with the verbal text and with the stances and movement of the actors. Venus' role becomes crucial as she precipitates actions the principals commit despite themselves, stops impulsive deeds, or simply listens, bides her time and gloats. Modern dance of the pre-World War 2 sort from Central Europe figured importantly in shaping the choruses we see in revivals of Greek tragedies, but what the director and choreographer do in this Phedre becomes inextricable from the principal roles. The dance might have become obtrusive, but shrewdly never did.

Saturday night's performance, the penultimate one of this run (Feb. 5 - 15), took a few minutes to shift into the needed high gear. It was gripping once it got going, though, and witnessing the final devastation gave one leave to shed a tear and lament the fate of those proud souls. Aimee Meher-Homji's Phedre grew from scene to scene. Ruthless yet pitiable, debasing herself despite her pride, she showed the conflicts going on within her as if strangle knots were being tied in a cord of the finest silk. Jesse Davidson looked appropriately handsome as Hippolytus, nor did one doubt that his chastity was virile, but there's a whine in his voice more appropriate for a modern American setting (not even the movie with Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins but perhaps Mike Nichols' The Graduate) than for a young hero. Sica Nielsen's Aricia looked lovely, and Anthony Van Eyck's Theseus had the force needed to realign everyone and everything when he finally appeared. Two of the attendants, Chris Batchelder and Emily Fenichel, had commendable diction.

The dancers were Sylvana Christopher, Aaron Jackson and Talia Bar-Cohen. Jackson had the advantage of looking enough like Davidson's Hippolytus to be his nimbus, but he's tight in the upper back and shoulders. As the Venus, Christopher was sensual and severe at the same time. She wields a powerful torso yet can also dance just with her eyes. Watching her lounging on a couch, drawing circles with a hand's pointed fingers, made it seem that the coils she was tracing ensnared Phedre, who became unable to resist reaching out to touch Hippolytus' features.

Live music supported the acting and dancing. Some of The Planets—arranged for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and percussion by Gordon Bowie (the Mars section) and John Saint Amour (Venus)—improved on Gustav Holst's original but ponderous orchestral scoring. Lorraine Ressegger contributed fight choreography. AUW is still hunting for a play for its second production, a play that will benefit from music and dance.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 7
February 16, 2004

© 2004 George Jackson




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