Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: eighth blackbird

with Agua Dulce Dance Theatre
Oct. 25, University of Richmond

The new-music sextet eighth blackbird opened its 10th season in residence at the University of Richmond with the premiere of Amy Beth Kirsten’s “Colombine’s Paradise Theatre,” perhaps the most subtle and elusive music-theater work that the group has staged to date.

Kirsten’s dream-like opus is based on commedia dell’arte, whose theatrical format and archetypal characters were developed in 16th-century Italy. Colombine is commonly its lead female character. Here, she hovers between life and death, torn between the fantasy of romance with Harlequin, the prankish seducer, and reality, represented by Pierrot. The Harbinger, a presence more than a character, “serves as a guide as well as a witness to Colombine’s struggle,” Kirsten writes in her program note.

The story is told primarily through mime-like movement. Dialogue is limited to three poems, adapted from the work of Isabella Andreini (1562-1604), a leading actress of commedia dell’arte, recited by Colombine with greater emphasis on rhythm and expression than on the words themselves.

True to the tradition of these itinerant theatrical troupes, the staging (by Mark DeChiazza) is skeletally minimal – basically, metal towers and chairs draped in patterned fabric. The costumes of Colombine and Harlequin are traditional; Pierrot is garbed in a white jumper not unlike the suits of hazardous-material disposal teams (minus the face mask). The Harbinger is not costumed.

Members of eighth blackbird double as actors and music-makers. Pianist Lisa Kaplan plays Colombine. Percussionist Matthew Duvall is Pierrot. Harlequin is portrayed by flutist Tim Munro, shadowed by clarinetist Michael Maccaferri and violinist Yvonne Lam. Cellist Nicholas Photinos is the Harbinger.

Rhythmic breathing and expressive exhalation figure almost as much as instruments and vocalizations in Kirsten’s composition.

Theatrically, the piece is a tour de force for Munro, whose leering stage presence and sinewy movements makes one wonder whether he might have opted for modern dance instead of playing the flute. Kaplan effectively conveys Colombine’s life/death, fantasy/reality state, often in near-stasis as she lies on the floor in a “nest” formed by her costume. Duvall’s Pierrot is a physically and emotionally distant figure, more engaged in playing percussion instruments, perched precariously on a high ladder, than in acting per se.

As eighth blackbird has frequently staged in Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” one wonders whether “Colombine’s Paradise Theatre” is destined to be a companion piece. Pairing the two would be fascinating, if exhausting for the six performers.

Another premiere shared the bill of this program: “passing through,” a piece staged by the Agua Dulce Dance Theatre, a troupe led by dancer-choreographers Alicia Díaz and Matthew Thornton, both on the UR faculty (he is also a martial artist).

The 20-minute piece is billed as a collaborative work, also created by video artists KimSu Theiler and Alexis Raskin, sound designer Oliver Lyons, lighting designer Patrick Kraehenbuehl and composer Andrew Clay McGraw. McGraw, director of UR’s Gamelan Raga Kusuma, an Indonesian-style gamelan orchestra, and members of that ensemble form the pit band for this production.

According to Díaz, “passing through” is the product of a creative process that continued through “the end of tonight’s show.” (And will resume in subsequent performances?) To its credit, it doesn’t play like a committee effort or work in progress.

The story line, if that’s the right term, is “the process of becoming, taking shape and then moving on,” we’re informed in the program note. Nebulous? To be sure.

The piece begins with “inception,” a slow-motion, mirror-image dance by a female duo, which segues into “fire,” a more frenzied set of movements by a male dancer with a video fire backdrop. “Forming” and “passing through,” the most eye-catching sections, are plays of physical movement and striking lighting effects.