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Michael Parmenter's OrphEus - a dance opera


OrphEus - a dance opera - Michael Parmenter & The New Zealand Dance Company
9-11 March 2018, The Civic, Auckland
Auckland Arts Festival

Reviewed by Francesca Horsley

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.

The nine New Zealand Dance Company dancers animated what was mostly a dark world with extraordinary skill and passion. Parmenter has created two story lines in the retelling of the myth, moving the action in Act I from ancient Greece to contemporary migrant scenes of despair. Act I created classical scenarios; the birth of Orpheus, the joyous celebration when he weds Eurydice; depictions of hell – the underworld, the turbulence of the Argo in a stormy crossing of the Aegean in search of the Golden Fleece, the treacherous lure of the sirens, complete with a dead sailor from the Argo hoisted aloft by his leg.

Act II captured the dissonance and tragedies of today. Life rafts carrying exhausted refugees, the terror of displaced people blocked by walls, the grief of lives lost and the tyranny of extremism. Searchlights hovered, and fear set people on each other in merciless frenzy. As with the Act I storm, Orpheus soothed their desperation and they comforted and carried one another. The imagery had the potential to shock, but it was never gratuitous, balanced by the intricate and expressive choreography.

Parmenter’s own movement methodology produced a unique weightless, outward reaching vocabulary. This extended from dancers’ bodies into the space with arcs, legs and arms reaching upward. The partnered sequences created spiralling pathways which either energised or disrupted.  In tender moments, conversely, muscles appeared to dissolve as bodies folded softly into one another.

The key roles of Orpheus and Eurydice were demanding both in character and artistry. Carl Tolentino carried the challenging roles of sensitive lover, commanding hero and peacemaker with clarity and power. As Eurydice, Chrissy Kokiri’s character changed substantially from passionate woman to a blind-folded wife following Orpheus’s guidance out of Hades, to a near inert spectre desperately trying to hold on to love and life. They were compelling. Sean MacDonald offered a mature depth and assurance, a crucial helmsman steadying the work’s journey.

Celebrated US tenor, Sheehan delivered the ornate baroque songs with lucidity and liquid golden phrases. The highly refined and harmonious musical works were interspersed with contemporary pieces by David Downes. Sheehan was expertly supported by polished performances by Australasian baroque singers and musicians performing with a variety of period instruments. The combined effect was both mesmeric and timeless.

It was an outstanding production with every element supporting and adding to Orpheus’s journey, old and new. This tour de force deserves a national and international audience.

OrphEus continues its season with the NZ Festival 16-17 March 2018, Wellington Opera House

*All images by John McDermott

Michael Parmenter's OrphEus - a dance opera

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