Seattle choreographer Olivier Wevers and Seattle composer Eric Banks join forces as dance troupe Whim W'Him and choral group the Esoterics collaborate on "Approaching Ecstasy," an evening-length dance-choral piece, May 18 - 20, 2012.
The poems of Greek-Alexandrian writer C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) are, in part, about masculine beauty, covert erotic connection and a simultaneous sense of loss and warmth in sexual memory.
But Seattle choreographer Olivier Wevers, a former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and founder-director of dance troupe Whim W’Him, also sees Cavafy’s experience as one of living “incognito”: hiding who you are, trying to blend in, shunting your real self into the shadows.
To that end, Wevers, in “Approaching Ecstasy,” is disguising almost all his performers — dancers and singers, male and female alike — in suits, ties and bowler hats. That’s the bureaucratic drag Cavafy most likely wore during his 30 years as a clerk for the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. If the costumes are carapaces, then the piece’s music and movement are the life trapped within and welling out of them.
“Approaching Ecstasy” is an evening-length collaboration between Whim W’Him and the Esoterics, a choral group led by Seattle composer Eric Banks. For both groups, it’s an ambitious undertaking. Banks’ score sets 18 Cavafy poems to music in both English and Greek, with four string players (the St. Helens String Quartet) sometimes accompanying the singers.
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Wevers, meanwhile, has devised 18 dance segments that will flow into each other via seamless, near-gymnastic connectivity between the dancers. (To see Andrew Bartee and Lucien Postlewaite balance, float and pivot their way through an intricate duet in rehearsal is akin to watching human slipknots forming and dissolving in rapid, sensual sequence.)
Earlier this month, Banks and Wevers chatted candidly about how the project got started. Wevers admits that he’d never encountered Cavafy’s work until Banks introduced it to him in 2008: “I was like: How come I’ve never heard of this guy?“
After going over roughly 25 poems that Banks sent him, Wevers made his selection.
“They ended up being really in sync with the ones I liked,” Banks says. Banks then crafted his own translations from the Greek in order to make the poems more “singable” in their English versions. He and Wevers also worked on the order in which the poems would be performed. Both men wanted a narrative that would artfully combine choral music and dance.
Banks points out that, in ancient Greece, Terpsichore was the muse of both choral song and dance. “In Western culture, especially in modern times, they’re separate arts,” he notes. “What I love is that, through this Greek poet, we were able to recombine them.”
All the dancers and all the singers will be onstage throughout the 90-minute show.
The imagery of “Approaching Ecstasy” draws on specifics from Cavafy’s life, including his battle with cancer of the larynx in his later life. But no single dancer will impersonate the poet. Instead, Wevers and Banks are conjuring what you might call an “essence of Cavafy” by slipping dancers, musicians and conductor alike into identical costumes.
“The idea that I came up with was to have everybody wear just black suits,” Wevers says. “It’s a 1920s-inspired look.”
Cavafy, he suspects, dressed to blend in, at least at his day job. That office anonymity is further emphasized having the singers mingle with the dancers onstage, sing from different locations, push parts of Casey Curran’s shape-shifting set in and out of position, and even become the set at some points.
“There’s a poem called ‘Obstacles’ where they’re going to be in the middle of the stage and the dancers are going to dance around them,” Wevers says.
The one exception to this identity-masking set-up is Kaori Nakamura who will dance en pointe and will not be wearing a suit. Wevers sees her as the ethereal incarnation of love, ecstasy and memory. In rehearsal, her closing duet with Postlewaite looked as promising and impressive as Postlewaite’s work with Bartee.
Looking ahead, Whim W’Him is in the process of becoming a company of 10 dancers on full contract with a 28-week season. They’ve booked tours in 2013, although not all the details can be disclosed yet.
One question on local dance fans’ minds, following Postlewaite’s announcement that he’ll leave PNB to join Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in the fall, is where that leaves Postlewaite and Whim W’Him.
“He’ll be back next January,” says Wevers, who is married to Postlewaite. That’s when Whim W’Him plans to stage a new work by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Wevers will travel with Postlewaite when he makes the move to Monaco in August and he has choreographic commissions in Europe that will make it easier for him to visit Postlewaite over the next few years.
“We’re both very strong in our relationship and it was time for me to do something for him,” Wevers says. Postlewaite, he explains, backed his efforts when Wevers was founding Whim W’Him. Now it’s Wevers’ turn to back Postlewaite in advancing his trajectory as a dancer: “He’s at the top of his career, and he needs to do everything that he can.”
With all that’s going on with Whim W’Him, Wevers concedes, they’ll both be “very busy — and Skyping a lot.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org