BWW Review: ORPHEUS ALIVE iS A Busy Piece That Takes The Classic Greek Myth In A Modern Direction
The National Ballet of Canada's ORPHEUS ALIVE is a ground-breaking theatrical production, with heavy focus on theatre. Choreographer Robert Binet has taken some huge chances with the incorporation of lengthy, text-driven components (writing, dramaturgy and text direction by Rosamund Small) that do a great job of explaining the narrative, but take away from what should be the main focus - dance.
The story draws on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the latter has died and the former, a talented musician, appeals to the gods and is given the chance to walk out of the Underworld with his wife. Because they're dealing with Greek gods, there's a catch - Orpheus cannot turn to look at Eurydice, or she'll be pulled back into the Underworld forever. It's a tragedy for a reason, and this production takes the bare bones of the story and completely modernises it.
In the NBoC's production, Orpheus is now a woman (Jenna Savella), and instead of a musician, she's a dancer. Eurydice (Spencer Hack) is - or was - her boyfriend, whose death by suicide happens on the tracks at an intricately designed and massive Osgoode station (set design by Hyemi Shin).
Eurydice's mother (Sonia Rodriguez) has been included in this narrative, although not even she seems to know why; in one speech to the audience, she revokes her inclusion as an excuse to keep Orpheus from being the saddest character. She's not wrong, either. While her dancing is gorgeous, it is suggested that she's under Orpheus' control - when she dances an especially sad piece after her son's funeral, Orpheus is clearly keeping her there with an outstretched, claw-like hand from the sidelines.
It's not just the mother under her control, either. The entire first "act" of the story is revealed to be a fiction to appeal to the gods. The massive subway, the passionate speeches, the flashing titles and witty banter that flashes across a projector above the stage are all for show. Orpheus pulls mourners from the opening waiting room at the gates to the Underworld to act in her story. It's not unlike a circus in terms of the spectacle and grandeur of it all, and Orpheus is the ringleader at the centre of everything.
Savella and Hack dance beautifully together, as do the dancers in the apparition's pas-de-deux. Unfortunately, when the entire cast is on stage together (a whopping 50+ person ensemble) ideas can get lost in the mass of bodies. Both Savella and Rodriguez do a solid job on the lengthy spoken parts, but it's clearly not what they're trained for and words are sometimes dropped or spoken unclearly.
Composer Missy Mazzoli has created a score that fluctuates between symphonic and simple. Her music fills any gaps in the storytelling, and her refusal to shy away from dissonant or unconventional sounds makes the music in ORPHEUS ALIVE unlike any of the NBoC's more traditional offerings.
Despite any issues with the staging, this is a take on the story that reflects real life, which is incredibly refreshing. The cast is diverse, and the inclusion of same-sex couples in the underworld is a simple yet important aspect. Binet's choreography also defies traditional gender roles in ballet; in ORPHEUS ALIVE, female dancers are responsible to support and at times lift their male counterparts.
It's in the smaller, quieter moments that ORPHEUS ALIVE really shines; flashy set pieces, massive groups of dancers, and dialogue are all nice additions, but are not necessarily needed. At the core of the production is a story about two people who have to trust each other and themselves. Doubt, internal conflict, and the aspect of the story dealing with suicide offer a lot of potential from a storytelling point of view.
This work is ultimately enjoyable, but it's also at war with itself. The clash of humour against grief, the mix of modern and mythical, and the swapping of huge sets for an empty stage is a lot to process in just over an hour. It might be intentional, though, and it's the autonomy of ORPHEUS ALIVE's main players that's the main draw. Eurydice commits suicide, and when given the chance to return with Orpheus he removes her blindfold - it's his choice to stay in the Underworld. His mother makes the choice to leave the story rather than be used as a poster child for sadness. Orpheus might control both character's parts in the falsified version of the story, but once she's forced to confront the truth she seems lost, wandering through the Underworld blindfolded and, eventually, empty-handed.
To fill out the evening's program, the 28-minute CHACONNE might not set the tone for ORPHEUS ALIVE, but it's a beautiful piece to open with. Heather Ogden and Harrison James are buoyant, delicate leads, supported by an ensemble of synchronized, symmetrical dancers. Costumes (Karinska) are simple, Grecian-inspired pieces. The minimalist staging puts focus on the precise movements of the cast, and Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice" score sounds lush at the hands of the orchestra and Briskin.
The National Ballet of Canada's ORPHEUS ALIVE & CHACONNE runs through November 21 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://national.ballet.ca/Productions/2019-20-Season/Orpheus
Photo credit: Karolina Kuras