OrphEus – a dance opera
Civic Theatre, cnr of Queen Street & Wellesley Street West, Auckland
08/03/2018 - 11/03/2018
16/03/2018 - 17/03/2018
New Zealand Festival of the Arts 2018
“Michael Parmenter’s name is synonymous with bold and innovative contemporary dance … challenging, thought provoking and fulfilling.” – THE PRESS (NZ)
One of New Zealand’s most acclaimed choreographers, Michael Parmenter, returns to the Festival with the world premiere season of OrphEus – a dance opera, a bold new work with The New Zealand Dance Company.
Parmenter has drawn on a ravishing musical score, including Rameau and Charpentier, reflecting a period during which the ancient Greek hero invoked a harmonious cosmos and a hierarchical political order. Since then, Orpheus has come to represent art’s power to transcend suffering and death.
In this richly layered, epic dance work, Parmenter brings these contending perspectives into conflict and dialogue. OrphEus confronts the power of music and voice in both the personal and the political realms, revealing, in this familiar story of love and loss, the tensions between seduction and restraint, harmony and disorder.
Combining the power of dance, live music and theatre, Parmenter’s incredible vision is brought to life by The New Zealand Dance Company, performing alongside Grammy Award–winning American tenor Aaron Sheehan, baroque ensemble Latitude 37 and special guests.
Through the lens of this mythic yet deeply personal tragedy, OrphEus thrillingly stages the eternal challenge of the artist – to seek the familiar or venture into dangerous uncharted territory.
For more information, visit the NZDC website.
“Sublime and deeply satisfying; a rich fusion of dance and song, narrative and design, music and deep emotion” on New Zealand Herald.
“You can tell when a show is masterful. When it has grabbed the audience and excited them en masse. Michael Parmenter’s OrphEus is one such show. Quite simply, it’s unmissable” on 13th Floor.
Opera House, Wellington
Friday 16 – Saturday 17 Mar 2018
Pre-show Artist Talk: Sat 17 Mar, 6.30pm, Opera House, Dress Circle Foyer
Orpheus – the canary in the mine
by Michael Parmenter
OrphEus – a dance opera, is not my first attempt to wrestle choreographically with the figure of Orpheus. The central movement of Etruscan Elegies, a 1994 research project undertaken with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, took inspiration from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes. The knowledge that major choreographers whose work I admire immensely – Georges Balanchine, Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown and Sasha Waltz – have all ventured significant works centred on the figure of Orpheus, has not deterred me from pursuing a fuller and more idiosyncratic reading of the myth than that which I might have conceived of a decade or two ago.
While Rilke may have inaugurated my initial fascination for the figure of Orpheus, the truth is that for many years I was so entranced by his late masterpiece Duino Elegies, that I gave his contemporaneous Sonnets to Orpheus only an occasional glance. It was the appearance of Don Paterson’s vibrant 2006 translation published simply under the title Orpheus, that rekindled my interest in this wonderful sonnet sequence, and in the titular figure who haunts these poems.
Another reason for the resurgence of the figure of Orpheus in my imaginative world has been my relatively recent engagement with the work of French writer Pascal Quignard, best known for his novel Tous les matins du monde (All the World’s Mornings), which reached a wide audience though its 1991 film adaptation. The story of the 17th century relationship between a young flamboyant viola da gamba student Marin Marais, and his severe Jansenist tutor, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe – whose music features significantly in our production – strongly evokes the Orpheus and Eurydice legend. Beyond this particular work, Quignard’s entire and considerable oeuvre is saturated by the notion that music and dance enable us to connect with an allusive and undifferentiated afore-time: a primal state of oneness with the world that has been lost through the distancing demarcations of language and analytical thought.[i] The themes of abandonment and exile, so integral to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, are as much political as they are personal, or rather, they are personal and political because they are ontological.
That the figure of Orpheus – who negotiates between Apollonian and Dionysian forces in the world – has made such a resurgence in works of literature, music and film over the past century – a resurgence comparable only to that of the 17th Century, the period from which my music selections are drawn – suggests to me that like that period – defined by the oppositional tension between the birth of scientific objectivity and the rise of subjective-centred philosophy – we too are confronted with a profoundly oppositional spirit. For us it seems to be that between honouring the major liberal gains of recent centuries – the rights and responsibilities of the individual irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion – and the current mistrust of the global perspective that such a perspective seems to demand. That Orpheus with his lyre appears at such times suggests that this tensional dilemma can be resolved only by imaginative and creative thought that is more akin to music or dance than to scientific or rational analysis. The Sanskrit TAN, from which the word tension derives, is after all, the root of both our sense of musical tone and of the dance, la danse, der Tanz.
While these linguistic games are decidedly Eurocentric, comparable figures to Orpheus exist in mythology and folk-lore in a diversity of cultural milieux. In a recent essay “Orpheus, Maui and the Underworld in New Zealand Literature”[ii], Simon Perris addresses the reception of the Orpheus myth in New Zealand through the engagement of both Māori and Pākehā writers with Māori and Greek mythology. The early invocation of Captain Cook as Orpheus conquering the antipodes, raises the spectre of a critical reading of the figure of Orpheus as harbinger of civilised European values, taming and domesticating wild savages living in a state of nature. That the 17th century was the great period of European expansionism only supports the notion, articulated by Nicholas Till in “Orpheus Conquistador”[iii], of early opera’s alignment with the intellectual and cultural project of colonialization.
This reading of Orpheus reinforces the necessity to acknowledge that Orpheus is a human, not a divine figure. Orpheus’ finitude and fallibility demand that we refrain from making him an ideal, and in fact that we take a critical stance when he too dangerously diverges from his role as negotiator between contending forces and domains. When Orphic voices start singing of absolutes and eternal verities then our fascination must be tempered by a critical resistance to their music.
It is in this spirit that I have approached my investigation of the myth of Orpheus. Though nourished by literary and historical sources, most of the important research has been done, not through reading poets and critical thinkers, but by thinking choreographically, i.e. with bodies in movement. This is not a solitary activity but is done collectively with dancers in the studio. Only thus can our work be truly Orphic. While the work is undoubtedly fed by images and concepts from other disciplines and art forms, it is only in confronting the tangible distance between bodies, and sensing the ebb and flow of divergent rhythmical signatures that the questions and tensions that confront us can be addressed.
Most of the work that has been undertaken in the creation of OrphEus – a dance opera has therefore been collaborative: between the various members of a thrilling and adventurous creative team, between myself, rehearsal director Claire O’Neil and the dancers, and particularly between the dancers themselves. The creative process we experienced might therefore be described as more polyphonic and improvisational than harmonic and hierarchical. While an overriding structure of the work was developed by the creative team, the challenge of giving life to this embryo fell to the extraordinarily creative and disciplined corporeal wisdom of the dancers, often working independently or in small cells of creative ferment distributed about the studio.
I wish to firstly acknowledge and thank the dancers for their willingness to venture with me into unruly and not easily navigable waters. I have been supported by an extraordinary creative team, Keren Chiaroni, John Verryt, Tracy Grant Lord and Nik Janiurek, which has provoked and challenged but never mutinied. Musical collaborations have always been one of the most rewarding aspects of the choreographic journey. Early in the process Marc Taddei was a generous consultant and relentless sleuth of hard to access musical scores. More recently I have delighted in the creative dialogue with musical director Donald Nicolson. It has been a special joy to revive a creative exchange with David Downes that goes back over three decades. The opportunity to work with such marvellous musicians, particularly Aaron Sheehan as the embodiment of Orphic song, is as thrilling for me as choreographer as it is for the dancers in performance. Lastly, I wish to thank The New Zealand Dance Company director Shona McCullagh, and her wonderful production team, and the artistic directors of the two commissioning festivals for their unswerving support and their courage in entrusting the resources necessary to confront the complex demands of staging such an
[i] See particularly The Hatred of Music, The Roving Shadows, Abysses, The Silent Crossing, all published beautifully by Seagull Books.
[ii] In Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand Literature and Society Eds. Diana Burton, Simon Perris and Jeff Tatum
[iii] Till, Nicholas (2011) “Orpheus Conquistador”. In: Opera Indigene: Re/Presenting First Nations and Indigenous Cultures. Ashgate.
CONCEPT & ARTISTIC DIRECTOR OF ORPHEUS — A DANCE OPERA: Michael Parmenter
CHOREOGRAPHY: Michael Parmenter and the Company
Jonathan Le Cocq
UNDERSTUDIES: Christina Guieb, Raisedinland Iose
SUPPORT TENOR: Sid Chand
SECONDEES: Hamish Phillips (NZSD), Laifa Ta’ala (NZSD), Brandon Ross (Unitec), Jacob Reynolds (Unitec)
REHEARSAL DIRECTOR: Claire O’Neil
WELLINGTON CHORUS REHEARSAL DIRECTOR: Lyne Pringle
NZDC CHIEF EXECUTIVE & ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Shona McCullagh
PRODUCER: Behnaz Farzami
SET DESIGNER: John Verryt
COSTUME DESIGNER: Tracy Grant Lord
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Nik Janiurek
SOUND SCORE COMPOSER & VIDEO DESIGNER: David Downes
DRAMATURG: Keren Chiaroni
MUSICAL CONSULTANT: Marc Taddei
ARTISTIC EXECUTIVE/VIDEOGRAPHER & EDITOR/ ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY: Caroline Bindon
COMPANY PHOTOGRAPHER: John McDermott
COMPANY TUTORS: Nicci Theis Mcewan, Michael Parmenter, Claire O’Neil, Caroline Bindon, Chrissy Kokiri, Carl Tolentino, Katie Rudd
PRODUCTION MANAGER: Jo Kilgour
STAGE MANAGER: Fern Christie-Birchall
ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER: Ashley Mardon
TECHNICAL OPERATOR: Abby Clearwater
MECHANIST: Roydon Christensen
WARDROBE SUPERVISOR: Chantelle Gerrard
LIGHTING INTERN: Elisabeth Strohmeier
Opera , Dance-theatre ,
2 hrs, including interval
A fittingly grand production
Review by Ann Hunt 26th Mar 2018
OrphEus – A Dance Opera is a production on a grand scale.
As well as the stunning dancers from The New Zealand Dance Company, there are 19 movement chorus volunteers; the sublime Award-winning American tenor, Aaron Sheehan; seven outstanding Baroque musicians, including those of Australia’s brilliant Latitude 37. They are accompanied with fine musicianship by Polly Sussex, Jonathan Le Cocq, Sally Tibbles and Miranda Hutton and the extraordinary voices of soprano Jayne Tankersley, countertenor Nicholas Tolputt and baritone William King.
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OrphEus is a diving delight
Review by Raewyn Whyte 19th Mar 2018
Michael Parmenter’s epic OrphEus — a dance opera, produced by The New Zealand Dance Company, is sublime and deeply satisfying; a rich fusion of dance and song, narrative and design, music and deep emotion.
Inspired by the legendary feats of Orpheus, his love for and loss of wife Eurydice, and scholarly writings exploring the Orphic world, the production has been long dreamed of by Parmenter. The opera immerses us in the life of Orpheus (Carl Tolentino), from his birth to his mother (Lucy Marinkovich) to his death at the hands of the Bacchantes (Katie Rudd, Bree Timms and Marinkovich), his adventuring with the Argonauts (Eddie Elliott, Toa Paranihi, Oliver Carruthers and Sean MacDonald) and his plunge into the Underworld to rescue Eurydice (Chrissy Kokiri) .
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Look back in splendour
Review by Brigitte Knight 17th Mar 2018
OrphEus – a dance opera (Orpheus, Eurydice and Us) is a large and ambitious project for The New Zealand Dance Company, conceived, created and directed by Michael Parmenter. The extensive programme notes and the work itself both indicate the academic depth of research and inspiration that have culminated in this large-scale production. Parmenter draws together past, present and future through an exploration of a plethora of narratives, perspectives and interpretations of the ancient Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice.
A magnificent and largely classical score is performed live by an ensemble of seven, including baroque trio Latitude 37. Parmenter’s affinity with classical music for contemporary dance provides opportunities for beautiful choreographic subtleties and nuances. The proximity and mobility of the musicians has been thoughtfully arranged, adding original symbolic depth to their presence onstage. Equally wonderful are five classical opera singers, also onstage, and integrated into the staging of the production. Singers of this quality are a gift to experience in person, and create a living, breathing exchange between dancers, movement and sound.
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Review by Francesca Horsley 17th Mar 2018
Michael Parmenter’s OrphEus – a dance opera was a masterpiece. The multi-layered dance, music and dramatic epic, merged classical and contemporary worlds in a challenging and inspiring journey of courage, temptation, forgetfulness – and eventually – harmony.
A minimalist set by John Verryt began with The Civic’s exposed back-of-stage cables, lights and gantry. As black curtains rolled down, the seven musicians, softly lit on a moving platform, began performing a programme of 17th-century composers, such as Charpentier, Rameau, Boësset and Moulinié, locating the work in its allegorical setting. They were later joined by soloist Aaron Sheehan and four baroque singers.
Four large rectangular shapes were suspended above the stage and once lowered were dextrously used as beds, boats, rafts, and walls. A trickle of performers crossed the stage in dark full-length garments building to a 24 strong movement chorus of diverse extras. This group played a pivotal role throughout the work, at times performing simple movements to heighten the action or creating the wash of humanity that witnessed and responded to the events.
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Impressive moments within confusing jumble-sale
Review by Sam Trubridge 17th Mar 2018
It is rare in New Zealand to see so many dancers moving together on stage, and throughout the work there are moments where this scale is really impressive. Bodies move like the swell, they surge together with a tidal sense of synchrony. In more courtly scenes their combined movements take on a mathematical quality, either in the jubilant wedding dance, or the melancholy court of Hades at the end. Parmenter seems most at home with these moments, weaving beautiful patterns with a wonderfully diverse collection of dancers that fills the stage completely. Early on I am struck by the painterly arrangement of his movement and bodies across the space, using the sculptural ‘contrapposto’ to tilt or twist the body, often in complement to other figures’ own dynamic angles. The paintings of Jacques-Louis David and Theodore Gericault come to mind especially, with their tangles of poised bodies and extended limbs that teeter on the edge of their balance. High legs lift in beautiful long black robes, that part around athletic bodies to reveal tints of crimson and emerald in their lining. Tracy Grant-Lord’s costumes play wonderfully here with that Baroque layering, enveloping the idealised classical body in liquid folds of darkness. The dancers move through these demanding sequences with a wonderful lightness of foot, lifting legs high and tilting together, like black feathers.
The story goes that Orpheus travels into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, and convinces various spirits with his beautiful voice, to let him return to the world of the living with his wife. They are allowed to leave on one condition: that he not look back at Eurydice as she follows him out. But Orpheus does look back, and Eurydice is lost forever. This last (and most famous part) of his story is hardly represented in Parmenter’s show. Perhaps it was there, but I missed it if it was. The stagecraft is unclear and the dramaturgy too scattered for the intentions of this twist on a classic tale to be legible. The result is a garbled storyline, and misleading images that devalue an audience’s ability to trust and follow the work.
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Geni March 23rd, 2018
Now that all the analysis is in, Mr. Tolentino and Ms. Kokiri together anchored the show. Full stop.
Kristian Larsen March 22nd, 2018
Phew that was lucky Sam, that could've gone badly. Have you seen Michael when he's really angry?
Michael Parmenter March 19th, 2018
Sam Trubridge has written an extended consideration of Orpheus – a dance opera in which he offers some pointed responses and makes some valid criticisms. However, his views are severely compromised by his inexcusable omissions, his wilful misrepresentations and his inability to read the choreographic language of the production. There are three aspects of Sam’s review that I wish to address: his adherence to a tired modernist notion of dance as ‘stand-out’ individualism that makes him blind to the fundamental inter-subjective nature of the choreographic language of the work, his complaint that I neglect female agency and his accusations of ‘impulse’ decisions, and dramaturgical laziness and superficiality.
Let’s start at the end of Sam’s review with one of his many egregious misrepresentations, the accusation that “the show programme…was refused to reviewers for this production”. Justin Gregory, RNZ reviewer for the Auckland season, had no problem getting a programme and in fact critiqued the extensive essays in the programme as “all a bit much” It is unfortunate that the unexpected demand for programmes for OrphEus, meant that by showtime on opening night of the Wellington season, these very beautiful programmes had sold out. I know that those who were distributing review tickets were intensely apologetic in explaining to reviewers why there were no programmes left. This problem was immediately rectified by an emergency run of programmes being printed for the Saturday evening performance. It is unfortunate that Sam did not have a programme to consult, for like him I believe that “an important device for mediating this dialogue is the show programme”, and so in the spirit of Sam’s desire to ‘dialogue’ with the work, I offer a few thoughts on his review.
Firstly I take it as a great compliment and an affirmation of the way they were integrated that Sam failed to make any distinction between the nine dancers of The New Zealand Dance Company and the 18 person strong volunteer movement chorus. However, the assertion that “there are very few stand-out performances, and few seem very present in their movements or their characters, and instead appear to be disinterested or aloof” needs to be teased out in order to understand how Sam could be so blind as to miss the many extraordinary performances by the NZDC dancers. But before coming to that it must be noted that Sam praises at length the performance of Lucy Marinkovich, referring to her role as that of ‘Medea’. In referring to her role thus, which is nowhere articulated in the programme, Sam is revealing his personal familiarity with the dancer, and I would suggest that the amount of time he devotes to her dancing, while absolutely justified, since her solo is extraordinary, is ethically indefensible if it means neglecting and thus disrespecting the artistry of other artists who make superlative and far more substantial contributions to the work.
The key to Sam’s myopia is in the expression ‘stand-out’, and it is clear that Sam’s notion of dance aligns with the modernist paradigm of dance as individual expression. The two moments that Sam highlights as fully engaged performances are the two rare moments in the work when solo dancers take centre stage, (strange, given Sam’s accusation that the work fails to acknowledge female agency, that these two solos are given to female characters), but it is telling and very disturbing that Sam is completely oblivious to the numerous examples of extraordinary present-ness to movement that occur in duets, trios and group works. Dancing for Sam is obviously an ‘individual’ activity, and the superlative mastery that the dancers of the company displayed in their inter-subjective corporeality throughout the production are inexplicably erased. Dancers for Sam seem to disappear when they are not standing as individuals in the follow-spot.
Sam notes that the most famous part of the Orpheus story – the descent to the underworld to retrieve Eurydice – “is hardly represented in Parmenter's show. Perhaps it was there, but I missed it if it was”. Sorry Sam, it was there, and you missed it. Why? Because it was an extraordinary seven-minute duet that displayed the supreme artistry of both Chrissy Kokiri and Carl Tolentino. We rarely see dancing of this sensitivity, trust and vulnerability and to think that a dance critic could ‘miss’ it is dispiriting in the extreme.
Perhaps the second most famous part of the Orpheus story, and a key turning point in the work – the revenge of the Maenads – is not even mentioned by Sam in his review. Why? Because it is a defiant contrapuntal trio by Lucy Marinkovich, Katie Rudd and Bree Timms. This dance is a companion piece to Marinkovich’s opening solo, which Sam justly admired, but because it involves more than one dancer it mysteriously slips under Sam’s individualistically inclined radar.
This blindness might not be so distressing were in not a failure to engage with the very choreographic heart and dramaturgy of the production. Only someone seduced by the sovereign individualism of modernity could miss that the final dance section for nine dancers is the political heart of the work. This complex interweave of bodies fails to single out individual dancers, but celebrates a choreographic polyphony that imagines what a society might look like where neither individualism nor mass conformity reign. The nine dancers, each with their own temporal rhythms, their unique vocabularies, and their idiosyncratic movement paths, all interlock in confusing and constantly changing relations.
A major strand of Sam’s critique is the proposition that I neglect female agency. Sam is right to identify female agency as a theme of the work, but his pre-configured agenda again blinds him to reading the dramaturgical and choreographic structure of the work as it unfolds. A consistent theme of many of the feminist critiques of the Orpheus story, is that the figure of Eurydice as a mere epiphenomenon of Orpheus’s role as poet and musician. There is no backstory outlining how O & E met, Eurydice is rarely given a voice, and she is seen as dispensable for the sake of Orpheus’ art. I align myself completely with this reading, and feel the work makes a clear feminist critique of Orpheus self-obsession. Complaining that “the dancer playing Orpheus [Tolentino] seems so disinterested in her, and hardly seems to look at her - instead fixating on his own movements or the movements of their hands and feet” is like critiquing Olivier’s Hamlet for being indecisive or faulting Anthony Sher for making Richard III duplicitous. I challenge Sam to find a production of Orpheus in which the figure of Eurydice is given such a fully rounded portrayal and in which she is given a chance to ‘speak back’ to Orpheus’ failure to return her to life.
Sam’s blindness is again apparent in his description of the stage action. Contrary to his assertion that Eurydice is manipulated by two men, she is in fact operated by two separate groups of three people: first two men and one woman, the second two women and one man. This is not an accident but a considered dramaturgical decision. And talking about the Bechdel test: Major female figures - Eurydice, Caliope/Medea, Three sirens, Three maenads. Major male figures - Orpheus. Jason (Sean MacDonald, who illuminates and transforms the stage with his presence and every one of his gestures), Boutes (the Argo crew member who dives to return to the sirens). Women 8, Men 3.
As noted above, Sam fails to mention the pivotal role of the three maenads, an archetypal image represented in European art across the centuries. In our production the maenads continue a line connecting the opening solo for Marinkovich, the defeated sirens and the lost Eurydice. The Meanads ‘rise up’ in response to Orpheus’s domination of the sirens, his failure to retrieve Eurydice and his retreat to the fortress of self. They stage a “women’s march on Washington” that successfully brings down the tower of male ego. Female agency is not neglected in OrphEus but is the very subject and theme of the work.
The final point I wish to discuss is Sam’s accusation of dramaturgical laziness and superficiality. I’m not sure if Sam has taken the trouble to secure a programme and read the essays by myself, dramaturg Keren Chiaroni and Musical Director Donald Nicolson. All three essays show that the major collaborators of this work have not taken our approach to this work lightly and there is a creative process with dramaturgical rigour that spans years not months or weeks. Not every theatrical image in the work is a complete success, I’m the first to admit that, but to bandy around words like lazy and superficial is indefensible.
I would suggest in fact that there is a degree to lightness and dismissiveness about Sam’s approach to the work that is exemplified by his failure to acquaint himself with the mere basics of the Orpheus legend. The final ravishing aria with the extraordinary tenor Aaron Sheen floating across the stage, far from being Orpheus’ return from Hades, is ‘of course’ the final part of the Orpheus story, the dismembered head of Orpheus (the voice of Orpheus rather than the dancing body) and his lyre floating on the sea towards the Isle of Lesbos. While Sam accuses me of heavy handedness, here it seems I am being too allusive. Is it too much to expect that a reviewer approaching a dance-opera about Orpheus, might do a little revision of the basic story of the myth: enough to read the most blatant theatrical images and some more nuanced choreographic relations.
Editor March 17th, 2018
Two minutes after Sam filed his review the NZ Festival emailed editors a pdf of the programme, with an apology for its being unavailable of the night. Michael Parmenter’s essay and the credits are now on the production page.