Archive for March, 2011

PostHeaderIcon Hercules Home From Iraq

Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers

What can an opera, whose composer died over 250 years ago, teach us about human suffering? Or what can a famous Greek playwright, who lived 25 centuries ago, say about modern warfare, long before the advent of guns, bombs and weapons of mass destruction?

Quite a lot it appears when Sophocles’ play, “Women of Trachis,” and George Friedric Handel’s oratorio, “Hercules,” are filtered through the brilliantly inventive mind of director Peter Sellars in his latest Lyric Opera collaboration.

Sellars has said that he wanted to depict the universality of wartime suffering, both on the battlefield warriors and those left behind on the home front. To that end, he has cut-and-pasted a modern libretto for this contemporary staging, aimed at underlining stark parallels between ancient Greece and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike his 2007 Lyric production of “Doctor Atomic,” where he over-reached in his attempt to critique the Faustian legacy of the atom bomb, Sellars triumphs this time out with a vocally rich, emotionally-charged production.

The casting of Eric Owens as Hercules, the gifted dramatic mezzo Alice Coote as Dejanira, Hercules’ wife, and countertenor David Daniels as Lichas, the court herald, was near ideal. However, the evening’s hosannas belong to Iole, the captured prisoner, sung by Lucy Crowe.

(Lyric, in its mail brochure, focused all its attention on the three leading stars and bypassed any mention of the night’s star with her pure tone and ardent delivery that merited several well-earned bravos.)

The story was spare, relative to its 3 ½ hour length. Sellars’ Hercules is portrayed less as the world’s strongest man but a general in full body armor, just returned from his most recent conquest to a hero’s welcome and his wife’s joyful relief.

Yet Hercules is a changed man returned to an alien world. He is shut down, refusing to talk about the war, what he has seen or how many he has killed. For Sellars, Hercules’ plight is like the experience of so many veterans of our current wars. He keeps the war inside where it still rages, until it explodes in post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence or possibly suicide.

Eric Owens (Hercules), Lucy Crowe (Iole), and Marckarthur Johnson (guard)

Eric Owens (Hercules), Lucy Crowe (Iole), and Marckarthur Johnson (guard)

The opera’s mood changes very soon after the opening curtain when we learn that Hercules has brought home a war trophy, the lovely Princess Iole, who is dragged on stage with her face masked and wearing an orange jumpsuit, evoking disturbing memories of Abu Ghraib.

Hercules is captivated by her but Dejanira is aflame with jealousy over having to share her home with this stranger and rival. Ironically, as a result of Sellar’s reworking, the destructive love triangle between Hercules, Dejanira and Iole is underplayed and almost non-existent in the production. Iole is barely seen in Hercules’ company at all but is wooed with greater success by Hyllus, his son.

Iole reaches out to make peace with Dejanira but is rejected. In her attempt to win back Hercules’ love, she unwittingly kills him and commits suicide when her plan for reconciliation goes horribly awry.

Sellars gives Hercules a hero’s flag-draped funeral complete with honor guard, despite his dying wish in Handel’s version to be buried on Mt. Olympus, home of the gods.

Opera purists may rankle at the extensive cuts and liberties Sellars has taken with Sophocles and Handel. Yet, “Hercules” succeeds brilliantly in depicting the cruel wages of war and ends Lyric’s 2010-11 season on a richly-satisfying high note.

Only two performances remain to catch “Hercules. For dates and tickets, go to

PostHeaderIcon Mark Morris Shines, River North an Evolving Ensemble

Of all the art forms I enjoy, dance is the one I get to see least. Simply a matter of allocating my time among Chicago’s rich cultural offerings and my preference for art, music and theater. However, I hold strong dance memories from my 20s and 30s in New York City many years ago.

There were magical nights watching the then new gymnastic contortions of Pilobolus or being at City Center when Alvin Ailey, with a young Judith Jamison, danced the joyous “Revelations,” the first time I saw The Joffrey Ballet perform the rock ballet, “Trinity” or Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe.” I watched, transfixed, as Mikhail Baryshnikov, shortly after his defection, executed astounding, seemingly effortless, leaps. I still retain a lasting interest in the work of Tharp and the ageless, ever-inventive Paul Taylor.

So, when two companies—River North Dance Chicago and the Mark Morris Dance Group–appeared at the Harris Theater last month, the time seemed right for a new dance fix. I’d seen River North on three prior occasions but this was my introduction to Mark Morris’ company.

River North

–It’s hard to believe River North has been around for 22 years. They were such a fresh face on Chicago’s then-smaller dance scene in the 1990s. They have always had a fine ensemble of superbly-trained dancers capable of smart execution and choreographic fireworks. Yet, on my last visit in 2009, I felt the company was dancing in place, mounting too many short works from its “greatest hits” repertoire but not breaking new ground. I left wondering if the company was stalled creatively.

River North - Tango

River North - Tango

Perhaps the company felt the same need for an injection of new blood. For this engagement, it shifted from its predominant jazz-dance technique and commissioned Argentinian choreographers, Sabrina and Ruben Veliz, to produce a five-movement suite of tangos, “Al Sur del Sur.”

Though I’m no Sid Smith, the Tribune’s dance critic, I found this world premiere a success. The dancers’ graceful fluidity and their mastery of tango style was very winning. My reaction to the rest of the program was mixed. Artistic Director Frank Chaves’ “Duets” showcased River North at its best with the segment set to the music of  “At Last” struck the ideal Valentine’s Day chord.

While “Love Will Follow” may have been fresh in 2001, today it plays too much like a commercial for “Dancing with the Stars” and should be shelved.  And though “Beat” and “Train”, two bodywork selections, featured virtuosic performances by Christian Denice and Hanna Brictson respectively, they left me emotionally cold.

Count me as favoring River North’s original jazz-dance identity as manifest in “Duets,” “Reality of a Dreamer,” its long-time signature piece by former co-artistic director Sherry Zucker as well as her 2009 re-envisioned “Evolution of a Dream” over the more athletic, street-influenced style.

Like Zucker, I look forward to River North Dance Chicago’s evolution as well. Perhaps the company, building on its success with the Veliz’s, should look outside its own borders for material from a wider range of choreographers.

The company’s next outing will be on April 16th at the Auditorium Theatre which features the world premiere of Artistic Director Frank Chaves’ “Simply Miles”, part of the Miles Davis Festival. That strikes me as the perfect marriage of jazz-dance and jazz.

Mark Morris

–The New York Times has hailed Mark Morris as “arguably the most successful and influential choreographer alive.” While I’m not about to challenge that opinion, I was impressed by the program of three newer works that he presented at the Harris.
Morris is a former dancer who performed with the dance companies of Lar Lubovitch, Laura Dean, Eliot Feld, Hannah Kahn and the Koleda Balkan Dance Ensemble early in his career. That direct connection with dance and the body surely influenced his own unique style.

Morris choreographed two of three dances with text to great creative effect. “The Muir” featured folk songs by Beethoven that perfectly captured the buoyant feeling of young love. “Socrates” was performed to music by Eric Satie with words taken directly from Plato’s “Dialogues” and projected on an overhead screen, an inventive touch that I’ve not seen employed before in dance. Yet the words, however powerful in their own right, proved distracting by forcing the audience to keep shifting their gaze from the dancers to the screen above to catch the words.

Mark Morris - "Petrichor"

Mark Morris - "Petrichor"

All three works exhibited a consistency of style that contributed to the overall effect.  In “The Muir,” dancers scampered lightly across the stage, like birds flitting from one branch to the next. In Petrichor, the dancers’ colorful, wispy tunics enhanced and expanded the dancers’ movement (see photo).

Apart from “Socrates,” the mood was sunny and light-hearted. Morris’ inventive choreography was expertly executed by his dancers. I particularly remember the moment in “Socrates” when the dancers, all portraying the Greek philosopher, collapsed to the stage en masse upon drinking the hemlock. This was a performance spotlighting the talents of the entire company. There were no star-turns, only dance that flowed organically with the music.

The result on this viewer was to switch off my critical faculty and simply revel in the joy of the dancers’ movements. I can’t wait to see more.