Orpheus & Euridice: Journal News, 2005

Creating art out of pain

Choreographer Doug Varone extends a hand to you so elegantly that – though the Manhattan rehearsal studio smells like a locker room, and the windows probably haven't been washed since the Nixon administration – you can see the two of you challenging John O'Hurley on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars."

But Varone isn't extending an invitation to the dance.

Kindly, he just wants you to move your keister from one of the prop chairs in his "Orpheus and Euridice," which will have its world premiere Wednesday at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in the Time Warner Center.

Visitors to the Lawrence A. Wien Center for Dance and Theater in the Flatiron district, where Varone is putting the finishing touches on the piece, must, however, be forgiven for becoming immersed in the proceedings.

For just as the mythic Greek musician Orpheus entranced nature itself with his stories, the new "Orpheus and Euridice" – based on Ricky Ian Gordon's song cycle for soprano, B-flat clarinet and piano – immediately engages you with the way it fuses music and the dance.

"I was excited by the music," says Varone, a Purchase College alumnus who has choreographed contemporary-dance pieces for the concert stage, opera, theater, film and TV as well as his own company, Doug Varone and Dancers.

"I was excited by what I felt could plausibly, hopefully be the melding of the dance and the music. I was excited to fold the musicians into the movement."

Coming up with a fresh approach to the subject is no mean feat. Orpheus – who braves the depths of Hell to retrieve his bride, Euridice – has inspired memorable works. Among them: Monteverdi's haunting "Orfeo" (1607), generally considered the first opera; George Balanchine's moving ballet "Orpheus" (1948); Tennessee Williams' melodramatic play "Orpheus Descending" (1957); the sensuous 1959 film "Black Orpheus", and shimmery, dreamlike art by such Symbolists as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon.

It takes a certain boldness to measure yourself against such well-known artists. But boldness is the quality Gordon sought after the music's premiere at Cooper Union in 2001. He says he wanted to give the song cycle "theatrical expansion."

"I love Doug's courage," he says in a conversation before the rehearsal. "The easy thing would be to make Orpheus and Euridice two of the dancers. But no, Orpheus and Euridice are Todd and Elizabeth."

Todd is Todd Palmer, the playful, passionate clarinetist who commissioned Gordon to write the song cycle. Elizabeth is soprano Elizabeth Futral, whose full-bodied coloratura alternately warms and soars.

They are joined by Varone's troupe and the gifted pianist Melvin Chen, who in addition to bachelor degrees in chemistry and physics from Yale, holds masters in piano and violin from Juilliard and a doctorate in chemistry from Harvard.

Yet in the work's prologue, these highly individual talents first form an anonymous chorus line. Futral, for whom Gordon conceived the soprano role, serves as the narrator as well as Euridice. Chen performs on a movable platform that is manipulated by the dancers and becomes the boat that carries Orpheus to the underworld.

The dancers are alternately stagehands, the leaping animals enchanted by Orpheus' song, the friends who bring the shy couple together and the mournful Greek chorus that attends Euridice's dying.

By showing us the guts of the piece, Varone creates a dance in which Orpheus is a deliberately self-conscious metaphor for the making of art.

"Orpheus was an artist, not only a musician but one who sang his own poetry. So artists can identify with his creativity," says Hyman H. Kleinman, a professor emeritus of literature at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, where he lectures weekly on "The Myth of Orpheus in Film & Drama."

But it's one thing to create movement for dancers. It's another to invent realistic steps for musicians, who do not generally possess the elasticity of dancers and who must perform on their instruments as they're moving.

Futral is well-aware of the distinction.

"This is quite detailed," the soprano says of Varone's choreography, shooting her index fingers off into different directions, adopting the dancer's practice of punctuating a thought with gestures.

"As an opera singer, I can still move in a free-form way. Here I can't. I have to relate to them," she says, gazing out at the dancers.

What's made it easier for Futral are the dancers themselves. "They are so generous," she says. "They don't make me feel like an outsider, which they could easily do."

And with that she lets out a throaty, musical laugh.

The generosity is in ample supply at the rehearsal. At one point, a swooning Orpheus is supported by the female dancers. But Varone is not quite happy with what he sees. One of the dancers suggests that she lunge forward, giving Palmer more time to make the movement fuller. The sequence is repeated, and Palmer swoons perfectly, his hips swiveling like a surrendering Elvis.

At another point, Orpheus must pop up and wave to Euridice, whom he's just met, on a high note. Varone wants the wave to be fun "but not goofy."

"What if I wink?" Palmer asks, adding a knowing one to the wave the next time and earning a laugh from his colleagues.

In the most popular version of the myth, Euridice is fatally bitten by a snake on her wedding day. In Gordon's libretto, she dies slowly after their married lives have taken root in a ritual of gardening and afternoon tea: "As she slept, he wept bitterly, and dearly. Growing more and more bereft when, in increments, she left."

The text leaves the audience to wonder which is more painful – the sudden ending of a relationship barely begun or the gradual death that becomes part of a lifetime of memories.

For Gordon, the leave-taking that lingers is more resonant. When Palmer asked him to write a piece for clarinet, voice and piano in 1994, Gordon was absorbed by the battle that his longtime partner, Jeffrey Grossi, was waging against AIDS. He died two years later.

Grossi's illness sapped Gordon's creative energies, but he woke one morning at 4 a.m. and saw Palmer as Orpheus. An hour later, he had written the libretto, and "Orpheus and Euridice" was born.

"Act 1 is about the birth of love," he says, "and Act 2 is about the stealing of that and the violence in grief."

So great are Orpheus' passions that he's able to persuade the seemingly unmovable Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of the underworld, to release his wife from death – on one condition: That Orpheus not look at her until they reach the earthly realm.

In "Orpheus and Euridice," he turns around in a panic at the thought that she might not really be there and that the gods may have deceived him.

"I think it's insecurity," Varone says. "You have a need to see and touch someone you dearly love."

And in fearing loss, he makes it a reality.

"There's always love, and there's always tragedy in life," Palmer says. "That's why it's a universal story. We'll all experience love – hopefully, at some point. And we'll all experience death."

But the Orpheus myth doesn't really end on a down note. After his death, his head keeps singing, and at last his spirit is reunited with Euridice while the god Apollo turns his lyre into a constellation.

Orpheus, Gordon says, "is about the birth of art from unhappiness."

– Georgette Gouveia, The Journal News, 2 October 2005