If any of you are in the NY area, and interested in things Bacchic, or if you just have an interest in good theatre, for the love of the Gods go and see The Classical Theatre of Harlem’s current production of “The Bacchae.” It’s phenomenal. We just got back from seeing the production. Here is the letter that I wrote to the theatre company.
“My husband and I attended last night’s performance of the Bacchae and I wanted to reach out to you. It was absolutely fantastic. There is no other way to describe it. I’ve taught the play, read it in the original Greek, written about it, and tried my own hand at translating it (serious kudos to the translator of your version, btw). More to the point, both my husband and I are devotees of Dionysos (He has His worshippers in the modern day), so for us, this is a mystery play, a ritual experience and oh, it was. It really, really was.
Neither of us had ever had the opportunity to see it in person, only on youtube clips. We were excited but approached the performance with some trepidation. It is such a sacred thing for us, what if y’all messed it up? what if you missed the core of the story? What if you portrayed Dionysos wrongly? What if….but almost from the beginning, we knew we were in for something special. By the time the chorus began singing “Go Bacchus, Go Bacchus, Go. Bring Back Dionysos” I was crying.
I”ve known for years that theatre was sacred to Dionysos. It never hit me how and why (and I was a ballet dancer professionally until my early twenties. It *should* have been ingrained in me). I”d just never seen this particular play done, the whole thing a glorious invocation to Him, and oh it makes so much sense now. He was so present throughout. That theatre became a temple.
Mr. Brown did a truly phenomenal job. I was particularly moved by the interactions between him and Mr. Foster…the moments after the latter dons female garb and shows such fragility ‘Can you make me beautiful?’ and Dionysos embraces him and says ‘you are beautiful’ and presses his forehead to that of Pentheus…and there’s such compassion for this broken man, and a chance there for Pentheus to heal and embrace who he truly is, for a different story and yet Pentheus turns away from it and back to hard headed and cruel impiety. It was so clear that when he spoke of wanting to tear the women apart, it was that fragile, fey part of himself that he wanted to truly destroy. It was heart-breaking but so few productions (of the snippets I”ve seen online) capture that.
The militancy of the Bacchantes was really well done and the music…the songs to Dione, to Eirene (“Queen of Heaven”) were beautiful hymns of praise. I really love the way the chorus was handled throughout — and usually I’m dubious about modernizing things, but this worked beautifully (and I especially liked the references to the Hudson and East Rivers instead of the Dirce and Ismene Rivers). it made it strikingly relevant. Opening it by an announcement honoring the Lenape people, the ancestors of those originally indigenous to the land where the theatre stands, slipping in an ‘Ashe’ during one of Dionysos’ monologues were particular touchstones for us. At the end, where Agave raves that she needs no Gods…it was so ugly, so impious, so stubbornly resistant to seeing her own part in all that had unfolded…she had learned nothing and it became obvious where Pentheus and his cousin Actaeon had acquired their foolishness. It really showed how we’re all just one step, one decision away from the road she chose to walk.
Oh thank you for such a powerful performance. That is all I wanted to say. I made a donation when I was there, but my household donates to various places quarterly and now you will be one of those places. It is a fitting offering to Dionysos.
The production runs through July 28. Bring water. Bring bug spray. And bring tissues.
Now that my thesis is mostly done (and my defense date scheduled), I decided to take the weekend off. A couple of really awesome opportunities arose that I just couldn’t pass up: Royal Danish Ballet dancers doing a Bournonville retrospective at the Joyce theatre, and Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Bacchae (the latter is free, which is lovely). I saw the ballet last night with a couple of friends and it was utterly delightful.
I’ve always loved the Bournonville style. It emphasizes ballon (the ability of dancers to jump with such ease that it almost seems as though they’re floating in the air), and quick footwork. It is elegant, precise, and this particular style never advocates contorting the body to achieve a higher extension. The emphasis is on artistry not acrobatics and it was a breath of fresh air to see a company that hadn’t given itself over to the colorless, broad blandness that so characterizes so much of modern ballet. It really fed the soul.
The performance opened with an excerpt from La Sylphide. The original version of this ballet was created for Marie Taglioni, a 19thcentury ballerina who pretty much ushered in the era of Romantic ballet ( culminating in ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty). Bournonville had danced with Taglioni in his youth and wanted to stage the ballet in Denmark. Apparently, he faced so many challenges from the Paris Opera Ballet (where the original had been performed) in doing so that he decided to choreograph his own version and it is this version that survives. It tells the story of James, a man who is engaged to a young woman of his village but who becomes enamored (and obsessed) with a sylph, an otherworldly creature of air and magic. Unfortunately for James, he pissed off the local witch by showing a regrettable lack of hospitality during his engagement party and his obsession with the sylph provides the opportunity for his undoing. He tries to capture this creature, which is rather obscene in and of itself: he’s taking this amazing wild thing and trying to tether it to mundane humanity, and the witch tricks him by providing him with a magic scarf. She tells him that if he wraps it around the sylph’s neck and arms it will enable her to remain with him. What it does is kill her and James is left with nothing, all the more so since his fiancée has long tired of his bullshit and gone off to marry his best friend. Last night’s performance showcased the section of the ballet where James kills the sylph. It is classic Bournonville, but was actually not my favorite part of the evening’s performance.
I much preferred the second half of the show which highlighted excerpts from the ballet Napoli, and other lesser known ballets. It was just delightful and the technique and artistry of the dancers, across the board, was high. It was a satisfying performance, and I particularly loved the rapport between the dancers. This review is correct: they were performing as much for each other, and delightfully, as for the audience. I was particularly impressed with the technique of principal dancer Jon Axel Fransson and soloist Stephanie Chen Gundorph. I have never seen such clean, effortless jumps as Mr. Fransson’s and Gundorph’s footwork was a thing of razor precision and beauty. I could have happily watched them for hours. Truly though, every dancer there was just amazing, including a performer that I can’t believe is in the corps: Tobias Praetorius. He had such a gift for comedy in his performance as a street singer that I found myself laughing out-loud. I also wish they’d done an encore of the Jockeydance, which was a hilarious variation depicting two jockeys competing to show off their skills. Seriously, all the dancers were quite lovely and if I could, I’d go to every remaining performance.
As a former ballet dancer, I was surprised to note that Bournonville style has preparations for turns in a small second position, not fourth. One of the more surprising elements of the choreography also involved a woman on pointe doing a series of bourrees or similar steps while the man holds onto her shoulder promenading in arabesque or attitude…usually it’s the woman doing that! The female dancers also darn the tips of their pointe shoes. I used to do this, though it’s not that common in American companies. It helps the shoe keep its shape and adds stability to the box. I was happy to see it being done (some of the shoes were signed and on sale so I got a good look at them).
I firmly believe art elevates the soul. It also represents the best that our human cultures have to offer. It crosses all boundaries and unifies like nothing else. We need more of it!
Tonight, it’s off to see the Bacchae, which for me is a deeply religious experience. I cannot wait to see what the Classical Theatre of Harlem is going to do with the play. It looks amazing. There is a review here.
(ballet photo couretsy of this site, where you can see more images of the dancers participating in The Bournonville Legacy show at the Joyce).
I am heartbroken about Notre Dame. As we were going into class tonight we learned about the fire. I believe it’s been put out by now, but the damage is horrendous. At least, from what I heard earlier, the relics and statuary were removed days ago because of the renovation being done. This church is a work of art, a treasure, beyond price. How much has been lost of that legacy that we will never recover? It’s just sickening. Apparently the fire was due to the renovation, a potential problem with renovating very, very old structures.
I follow a historical channel on facebook that often posts really quirky or interesting facts about various periods in history. I’ve actually learned a few things from their articles and it’s one of the more enjoyable sites that I follow. Yesterday, they posted a clip of A. Moreschi, the last castrato. He was never a major operatic voice, but a well-respected singer in the Vatican choir. There are recordings of him made in 1902. They’re not great. Recording technology at the time lacked the capacity to record the fullness of a singer’s range. One sees the same issue with female sopranos who were recorded around the same time. The result is weird, thin, and reedy. Still, we have these recordings and they are an interesting nod to a group of men who transformed the musical world.
So, many of the commenters were unfamiliar with castrati and since this is pretty much exactly what my entire dissertation is going to be on, I jumped in and we were talking about it, except the women (and it was all women with whom I was conversing, something that, given the topic, surprised me) with whom I was conversing couldn’t get past “you’re disgusting” if you find beauty in this. The idea of transcendent beauty, of sacrificing oneself for something better, for an art that will impact generations, of considering an art worthy of self-transformation was completely beyond their comprehension. They could not get past, “that’s horrific and you’re disgusting unless you agree with us wholeheartedly that it’s awful.” Well, I don’t think it was.
The names of these men are sacred to me. When they were very young they (there are cases of individual castrati requesting it. I believe Caffarelli was one such) or their parents chose castration in service to Art. Instead of progeny, they reached for immortality. Instead of poverty, they chose a path that would, if they succeeded even at a modest career, elevate the standard of living and status of their entire family. They chose a path that transformed them into conduits for an awe-inspiring, transcendent beauty. I mourn the loss to our world of their living presence.
I think in a world poisoned by the post-modernism, where our idea of Art is to throw paint on a canvas and call it such, where we no longer connect the arts and the sacred, where we are, in fact, deeply suspicious of anything holy or sacred, and where we consider the human individual the height of majesty it can be very, very difficult to comprehend a time, a place, and people who have other standards. Art is the best and highest expression of who we are as a species. It is better and more important than any single one of us and those who sacrifice themselves to its fire should be honored. I was a ballet dance, professionally for a time, which means I started a career that left a brutal imprint on my body – one I still struggle with in terms of ongoing injury and chronic pain—when I was a child. This was my choice. In fact, I did it against my parents’ desires. So to say that a child cannot know what he wants, cannot make the choice to devote himself to a craft is nonsense. Children do this every day.
We have no problem today with celebrating children ranging from three on up who choose to take hormone blockers, pharmaceuticals, and to prepare for extremely painful surgery and who run the risk of rendering themselves permanently sterile to shape their bodies in accordance with their inner vision. How is this any different?
The castrati were not, despite efforts of queer theorists to use them as such, transgender. They were men, men who gave themselves over to something much bigger and more important than their individual selves. In doing so, in creating bodies capable of containing and producing a glorious, angelic sound, they transformed their world and ours. I think we must affirm their choice to shape their body as their will intends, or where is the freedom of the individual we so cherish today? Beauty at that level is always horrific. That is why it is sacred. I, for one, praise it. Moreover, I’d like to see more people willing to give their all for Art, and most of all, for their Gods.
And Nott’s prayer card is finished. She was the only member of the House of Mundilfari for Whom I didn’t have a prayer card. She is holding the milky way in Her hand. (image by G. Krasskova)
“Vesta” by Lykeia
(This painting is for sale. Interested parties may contact Lykeia directly at daphne.kyrene @ gmail.com (remove the spaces around the @ sign first). The price is $275 + $15 shipping and handling. It will be shipped off frame in a tube for best pricing and safety. The painting is 20×24).