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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: LYRA a collaboration of Post:Ballet, The Living Earth Show and film maker Benjamin Tarquin presented by Stanford Live in The Studio, January 18 -20, 2024

Updated: Jan 21

Pandemic venue closures and isolation protocols forced us all to change plans, but the most creative among us turned prohibitions into opportunities. Such is the case with the extended collaboration between composer Samuel Adams and experimental chamber music duo, The Living Earth Show, who were themselves collaborating with Post:Ballet on Lyra, a contemporary dance set to premiere in July 2020.  Interrupted in mid-creation Lyra, evolved into a dance film captured outdoors in the stunning environs of the Eastern Sierra.  Thus, the geology and harsh beauty of the American West became a meaningful character in this powerful retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.


Each stutter in process seems to have fostered deeper partnerships.  Adams and musicians Travis Andrews (guitars) and Andy Meyerson (percussion) worked together on the score for years beginning in 2015/16. Their extended collaboration gave rise to a 65-minute work, Adams’ longest piece to date.  The musicians also spent a luxurious amount of time with choreographer Vanessa Thiessen and her cast of a dozen dancers, participating in all the rehearsals of the initial wedding section and allowing them to match their beats to the dancers’ cadences. 


The Living Earth Show performing in front of a dance film of Post: Ballet; Photo from Stanford Live website.


The film, shot and edited solely by Cinematographer Benjamin Tarquin, features stunning close-ups, urgent group movement sequences and overhead drone footage which dwarfs the human form against monolithic outdoor settings.  Relying solely on natural light, Tarquin creates stunning silhouettes, and captures golden rays streaming through atmospheric dust kicked up by dancers in motion. 


Following the initial San Francisco Performances’ premiere in the Fall of 2021, Lyra is being presented by Stanford Live in their intimate experimental space, The Studio. On the screen, at the rear of the room, a rock-strewn peak rises from a valley dotted with the twisted trunks of ghost trees.  On stage the guitars, keyboard, xylophone and varied electronic music making instruments of The Living Earth Show await.  Winds howl and birds cheep. The attentive among us notice three tiny human figures traversing the distant projected hill top. Slowly the trio wends its way down the gravely slope. Coming in to focus are Andrews, Meyerson and Emily Hansel, cast as Atropos, the Fate which cuts the thread of life.  In a moment of theatrical magic, Andrews and Meyerson exit the screen and enter the stage live, taking their places, ready to spin their sonic tale.


Lyra begins with the woodland wedding of Orpheus, dynamically danced by Babatunji Johnson, and Eurydice, the pretty in pink, raven-haired Moscelyne ParkeHarrison.  Adams score is subtle initially, casting out single reverberant chords as a Greek chorus of golden gods and goddesses emerge from the tree line to dance in celebration of the star-crossed couple. 


Designer, Christian Squires’ costumes lend the proceedings a glam rock-opera vibe. The silhouettes reference Elizabethan high-collared jerkins and round-hipped pantaloons. The lux materials a combination of modern reflective faux-leathers and timeless jewel-toned velvets and chiffons.  The otherworldly look is completed by Make-up Designer, Mia J. Chong’s oversized metallic eye shadow shapes.  The contrast of fanciful, theatrical characters against the sharp rock outcroppings, flowing turquoise waters, and the leaf-strewn locales creates intriguing tensions throughout.   


Thiessen’s choreography, originally intended for a concert stage, gives each performer some signature movements, which repeat, much as the notes of a composition might, during the wedding scene.  But watching the dancers navigate confidently through the unforgiving landscapes soon creates even greater interest.


Hansel moves with intention, beckoning her prey to join her as she fords a stream. Moving boulder to boulder she enters a cave carved by the rushing waters. The darkness of her underworld lair shown in stark relief to the bright sunlight of the living world.

ParkeHarrison’s Eurydice sinks below the water’s surface, her diaphanous scarf flows with the current on luminous aqua bubbles. A bereft Johnson emerges from the river’s depths in hopes of following his bride.  Passionately and prayerfully, he presses his palms together, drawing them toward his chest in an increasingly swift cycle.  Meyerson’s plucked isolated notes are his only accompaniment.


Mia J. Chong, Colleen Loverde, and Anthony Pucci move as one menacing multi-limbed creature in their role as Cerberus, the multi-headed underworld guard dog. Distinctly non-human, in faceless silver-domed masks, they crawl and roll as one.  Limbs join, forming a window through which a head emerges, as Thiessen crafts a dance of beastly connection for the trio. 


Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld, portrayed by Cora Cliburn and Landes Dixon, share a strong connection. Their backs touch as they squat deeply.  Cliburn tilts sideways maintaining her plie, her hands cup the crown of her head with fingers extended, antenna-like.  The musical theme of hell it seems is the tinkling of bells and chimes, an intriguingly more buoyant choice than the deep chords one imagines for a traditional classical music hellscape. 


Adams score calls for distinct strands to emanate from separate locations in the room, allowing breezes to rush from one corner while an animal’s call approaches from another. Meyer Sound’s new spatial sound technology Spacemap Go makes this possible.

The section entitled ‘River’ is cacophonous, merging recorded instrumentation with fast guitar playing and eclectic percussive sounds such as that of a trash-bin-lid being struck. A squad of underworld beings, silver war paint atop their cheeks, darts forward onscreen breeching the confines of a desolate wash.  Tarquin varies the image speed from slow motion to real-time and accelerated. He layers the characters ‘thrusts with leap-frog-like editing that enlarges the casts numbers. 


Andrews and Meyerson face each other, partners in this epic task of memorization and musical delivery in time with the images.  Their focus on each other is mirrored onscreen by that of Johnson and ParkeHarrison whose gazes connect them across a geographic divide, as Hansel crouches below and behind her captive, preventing Eurydice’s escape.


Johnson, as Orpheus, is our throughline. His persistent pursuit of his lost bride carries the piece.  We worry for him as he runs with abandon through the uneven terrain. And then suddenly the film ends and he comes tumbling headlong into the concert hall. Heartbroken, writhing in distress, Johnson rises, reaches and collapses. His violent trajectory leaving skids of rubber from his black soled boots across the floor, leaving us as breathless as he, as witness to this grand undertaking. 


Review by Jen Norris, published January 21, 2024

________________________________________

Production Credits:

Stanford Live

THE LIVING EARTH SHOW AND POST:BALLET

Lyra

JANUARY 18 -20, 2024 | THE STUDIO

Credits:

Artistic Direction: Vanessa Thiessen, Benjamin Tarquin, and Robin Dekkers

Music: Samuel Adams

Musicians: Travis Andrews (guitars) and Andy Meyerson (percussion)

Choreography: Vanessa Thiessen with significant contributions by the dance artists

Cinematography, Video Direction, and Editing: Benjamin Tarquin

Costume Design: Christian Squires

Costume Construction: Jan Berletti, Christopher Dunn, and Isabelle Burgess-Corkins

Makeup Design and Production Assistance: Mia J. Chong

Original Lighting Design: David Robertson

Sound Consultant: Mark Grey

SpaceMap Go Consultants: Steve Ellison and Leonard Blanche, Meyer Sound

CAST:

Atropos: Emily Hansel

Clotho: Travis Andrews

Lachesis: Andy Meyerson

Orpheus: Babatunji Johnson

Eurydice: Moscelyne ParkeHarrison

Gods and Goddesses: Charmaine Butcher, Mia J. Chong, Caitlin Hicks, Colleen Loverde, Jenna Marie, Anthony Pucci, Christian Squires

Cerberus: Mia J. Chong, Colleen Loverde, Anthony Pucci

Hades: Cora Cliburn

Persephone: Landes Dixon

Underworld Beings: Charmaine Butcher, Mia Chong, Caitlin Hicks, Colleen Loverde, Jenna Marie, Anthony Pucci, Christian Squires

Lyra was made possible by the generous support of the following partners:

San Francisco Performances, The John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Meyer Sound, The Fleishhacker Foundation, New Music USA, and the Seven and Chance Giving Fund.

Sound reinforcement and Spacemap Go technology generously provided by Meyer Sound.

Special Thanks to BAMPFA, Becca Brewer (Holistic Healing Facilitator), Tyler Benari, Berkeley Ballet Theater, Paul Dresher, Brenden Blaine Darby, Cody Enicke, Randy Griffin, Eddie Hicks, Matthew Kimball, Ali Taylor Lange, Helen and John Meyer, Javier Ochoa, Emre Ozdemir, Rolling Chef Catering, Derek Rushin, Robert Rushin, SF Dance Film Festival, Matthew “Wagz” VanWagner, and Vita Brevis Club.

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