The 1959 Marcel Camus film "Black Orpheus" re-enacted the classic Greek myth in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Now local dance audiences have a chance to see Orpheus reclaim Eurydice from an Underworld located below Los Angeles' Fourth Street bridge in a new one-act ballet-opera by Los Angeles Chamber Ballet.
LACB's "Orpheus," which will premiere Feb. 26 at the Japan America Theatre, features decor and costumes by painter Mark Stock, a commissioned score by Lloyd Rodgers, and choreography by company co-director Raiford Rogers--the second collaboration in two years by these L.A.-based artists. The first was the full-length ballet "The Little Prince."
Stock spotted the bridge near his downtown studio. "In the afternoon shadows, it was the darkest underplace possible. Very lonely, very scary," he recalls.
Rogers defends the choice: "That's the beauty of mythology. It's alive because each generation gives its own interpretation in accordance with beliefs, values, even frustrations of its own time."
The LACB project is based on Ovid's "Metamorphoses." "Ovid was one of the first urban poets," Rogers relates. "He was interested in the decadence of city life when the others were writing rustic pieces. He never pulled any punches: His version (of "Orpheus") isn't 'flowered up' like Virgil's."
In fact, Ovid's explicit references to Orpheus's homosexuality inform the LACB production. According to the libretto, Orpheus "taught the Thracian people to transfer love to tender young males," and was eventually dismembered by vengeful women.
Ovid plays an active role in this "Orpheus," with countertenor Dennis Parnell (costumed as an antique road-warrior) narrating and framing the action on stage.
Composer Rodgers notes: "In the time of Augustus, poetry was meant to be read aloud. Ovid forms a parallel to Orpheus (a musician and poet whose music had supernatural powers), in that he controls the drama and creates the magic of theater as he sets the scene."
Rodgers' first opera score presented new challenges. "The text is the central issue," he remarks, "the rhythm, sound, sense." To translate or not: "The translation loses the music of the original," he sighs. "We decided 'Let's just do it.' "
Thomas Graffio, a local classics scholar, excerpted Ovid's Latin poetry for the libretto, then translated the work for the scenario and a printed libretto for the audience. "The score is in keeping with the original Latin rhythms," he says. "It sounds like medieval music, not strict measured rhythm, almost free-flowing."
Without changing Ovid's language, Graffio worked to distill from the original "a simple, gestural approach." Seen in an early rehearsal, the choreography for Orpheus' solo of supplication to the gods corresponds with clean-lined, contemporary classicism.
Rogers, whose musical training is more extensive than his dance background, says he choreographs "bar-by-bar," working with a cassette and Rodgers' score. "Sometimes," Rogers notes, "we talk on the phone, and Lloyd is literally working it out with me, playing the piano to get me going. He'll give me the structure, the dynamics, the key, the first few notes. We pull each other along."
Stock echoes the sense of closeness and freedom in the collaborative relationship. "I talk to Raiford every day. He tells me, 'You're the artist, you come up with the look.' " For Stock, theater provides "the thrill of 800 people seeing my image. Raiford said, 'You set the opening scene, do whatever you want with Eurydice. The first ten seconds are yours.' "
According to company co-founder Victoria Koenig, "Creative interchange is the key reason Raiford and I wanted to organize the company, to do original work on a collaborative level. This is not a one-choreographer company."
In addition to "Orpheus," the program features all new work. Local tapper/modern dancer Fred Stickler, a veteran of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and founder of Eyes Wide Open Dance Theatre and the Jazz Tap Ensemble, makes his company debut with a modern-dance duet for himself and Koenig. A new tango-flavored ensemble ballet by LACB resident choreographer Patrick Frantz completes the evening. Live music will accompany all of the ballets.
The eclectic program is typical of LACB, which, to Koenig, "provides a wide arena for experimentation."
The company's budget has doubled every year, according to Rogers, and LACB received its first national funding this year. Besides support from a small, loyal board and from Royal Ballet veteran and eminent local dance teacher Stanley Holden, who donates rehearsal space, the company now attracts corporate sponsors including California Federal Savings, Bullocks, Mazda, Target Stores, General Telephone and Pacific Bell.
Its accomplishments in just seven years are impressive and now "Orpheus" propels the company into a ballet opera with much darker shadings than anything it has previously attempted.
To Koenig it represents "a great adventure--and a necessary risk." "It should be a wonderful success," opines Rogers, "or a miserable fiasco. Nothing in between. As long as they feel it's stageworthy, audiences get their money's worth."