For fans of Whim W’Him and The Esoterics (not to mention the St. Helens String Quartet), the arts event of the year is nearly here. This weekend, May 18 to 20 (and the 18th is already sold out), the groups present a new work steeped in history and in contemporary concerns: Approaching ecstasy (at Intiman Theatre; tickets: $15-$125).
Employing the diaristic poetry of Alexandria’s genius loci, Constantine Cavafy, Approaching ecstasy unites a capella chorus, music and voices, and dance to create “expressions of fear, hope, remembered love, and excruciating beauty.” Not entirely coincidentally, you might be struck by how Cavafy’s only semi-coded poetry–scenes from life as a gay man living in Egypt, a man who turned 37 in 1900–resonates in today’s contentious air.
There’s no question that Cavafy is a major poet, but his reputation had to wait until society caught up to him. Though he worked as a nondescript ministry clerk for years, Cavafy made of his poetry a treasure house of the erotic, sensual, visceral–every fleeting thing that shot through the body, he trapped not in amber but in ink, refusing (as Auden later wrote of him) “to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.”
O body, remember not only how much you were loved,
Remember not only the beds where you reclined,
But also remember the desires that you awakened in others:
Desires that glowed brightly in their eyes,
And trembled in their voices, desires that,
For whatever reason, vanished.
He was killed by cancer of the larynx, after enduring a tracheotomy that left him voiceless. The Esoterics’ polymathic founder, Eric Banks, has set set eighteen of Cavafy’s poems. Audiences will hear them first in English, sung a capella in Banks’s new, singer-friendly translation, and then in Greek, with the St. Helens String Quartet performing with The Esoterics chorale. “We’re kind of a Greek chorus,” said Banks, who is the kind of person who will make that pun.
It’s a canny way to let the audience attend to the poetry and dance, separately, and in unison.
The project has been simmering, in a way, for about four years, since Banks traveled to Egypt himself. He and Whim W’Him’s Olivier Wevers were introduced years ago by a mutual friend on staff at Pacific Northwest Ballet. They initially met up backstage at McCaw Hall, and made plans to have a longer conversation. “When we met, I had Cavafy’s poems with me,” Banks told me, after a Whim W’Him rehearsal, “and I just showed a few of them to Olivier, and he immediately lit up.”
“Then there was a long wait, because we needed to get the funding. I won a Seattle City Artists grant to write the piece, and we won more money to pay for the players.” But lining up the schedules of Whim W’Him (and PNB, which employs some of the troupe), The Esoterics, and their founders, took even more time. “The past two years was, like, come on, let’s do this, let’s figure out,” said Wevers. “But it was important that it was done well, that we didn’t just throw it together.”
“We finally figured out a date well in advance that would work,” said Banks, “and it was May 2012.”
The score was completed in early 2012. Banks wrote the a capella segments first, then commandeered a piano and sang them, so that Wevers could hear what he was aiming for. (“I just asked for lots of colors and contrasts,” interjected Wevers, as the voluble Banks paused mid-story. “Eric is very symmetrical, and I’m very asymmetrical in the way I work. We pushed and pulled each other, both trusting that the other had something valid.”) Later, Wevers got updates via sound files. Choreography on the dancers started just four weeks ago.
Cavafy’s poetry, pulled from the course of 33 years of his writing, isn’t presented chronologically–“It was an arc of emotions that we were looking for,” explained Wevers. Visually, candles are used to represent days in a life; at the end, there’s only one candle left, and Cavafy is alone with the “flickering flame of memory” (danced with a mesmerizing, endless phrasing, even in rehearsal, by Kaori Nakamura).
When I mentioned this last part to Wevers, he got excited about what he called “liquid bones”: “In classical ballet, it’s often about all these poses that you do,” he said. “With the great choreographers, you don’t see transitions really, every movement leads to another movement.”
39 different vignettes transpire over the course of the 86-minute show (with no intermission). Banks described it as “trysts, hook-ups, and hiding” shading into a more interior, contemplative world as the work goes on, Cavafy transmuting his life into something ethereal, fantastic. Even “creepy,” Wevers added, referring to Banks’s music for “Obstacles.” To Banks’s raised eyebrow he responded, “No! Creepy is great.” (It’s a vignette that portrays Cavafy’s frustrated wish for a world in which he could be free.) Gavin Borchert previews what to expect musically.
The dancers might offer a more narrow-eyed appraisal of the composition, which Banks cheerfully described as in “all lopsided Arabic meters. They’re dancing in thirteen, and seven, and ten….” A new face is Shane Ohmer (of the Bad Boys of Dance’s “Rock the Ballet”), but otherwise it’s Lucien Postlewaite, Kaori Nakamura, Chalnessa Eames, Tory Peil, Andrew Bartee, and Jim Kent.
Wevers’ choreography, balletic for Nakamura and Postlewaite’s duets, contrasts with a kind of grappling match between Bartee and Postlewaite (“human slipknots,” says Michael Upchurch–ah, le mot juste!), the densely intertwined, ankle-teasing pairing of Eames and Peil. At rehearsal last weekend, Wevers was mostly attending to details: “You’re being pulled back by your arms, not your hands,” he told the dancers. To Ohmer: “And just allonger over there…”
Whim W’Him is working again with set designer Casey Curran, who has created a moveable box that travels with the dancers; it’s at once a frame, showing them off, and a restraint. It recapitulates the framing, and restraints, of Cavafy’s poetry, which at once put his life on view and–circulated among friends–kept it carefully contained.