by John Munger • August 1, 2008 • For starters, the title of this Fringe show is all in lower case, no caps. This is in part a reference to the fact that this show is less than 60 minutes, with a cast of only two, but the grand opera, Aïda, is about as colossal as you can get.
I have personally performed in a production of Aïda, as a dancer, and I can report that we rehearsed the Grand March when Radames returns triumphant from war in an ice-less summertime hockey rink with the director using a bullhorn. And there were about 100 people on stage. This opera is that big.
Penny Freeh of James Sewell ballet and a serious choreographer in her own right has joined with Stephanie Fellner of Ballet of the Dolls to create a duet version of Aïda’s eternal triangle: the triumphant Egyptian warrior-prince Radames, the princess-girl-back-home Amneris and the Afro-hued Aïda from the conquered South who draws Radames into new directions. How the hell can two dancers deliver this whole package?
For starters, the sound track serves the role of Radames the hero-prince, as do a handful of props artfully used to suggest the presence imagined by the two loving and competing women. For substance, these are two of the best nouveau-ballet dancers in town, and possibly in the nation. They can do Amneris and Aïda with depth, wisdom, occasional humor, and flawless dance skill.
There is extensive and very, very intelligent use of what is called “parallel movement” in this piece. This means that two or more dancers do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. Those old enough to remember can recall TV commercials featuring the Doublemint Twins. Those under 35 might think of backup dancers behind hiphop singers. This use of parallelism transcends mere unison to become a statement that the two women have too much in common. Way too much. We feel this in our bones as we watch because the choreography slips in and out of this parallelism effortlessly, constantly reminding us that they are two different people while also constantly re-stating the romantic unison that drives the tragic plot.
Meanwhile, Stephanie and Penny stop every now and then to have coffee. Folks, this is quite a show.
In a way I was a bit bewildered at times. There were three or four places where I “got” what was going on, but then what was going on kept going a bit too long. A problem of pacing. For example, when Aïda is tortured by Amneris by way of coffee beans (I won’t explain and you have to go see it) I was ready to move on 30 or 45 seconds before the next transition. But hey, the sound system is blasting that iconic aria, “Celeste Aida” ironically underscoring it so you have to play it out….
If you want to see a choreographer/artist (Penny) tackling a really big one, having mixed success, but delivering a show totally worth seeing, this is your chance. I personally believe that masterpieces are incredibly rare, and that to expect one is unrealistic. But I also believe that seeing utterly fine superb good work that finally has to stop short of the crest of Everest is what the community compact between audiences and arts-makers is all about. We are humans. We make art. That’s almost invariably what archeologists and historians remember about us, and almost invariably about 65% of what schoolchildren are taught. Making art, being able to laugh, and weeping over another’s grave, are three of the things that distinguish us most clearly from animals. We also make war, but I’ll choose the first, the making of art. Sadly, the people who make war often dismiss the ones who make art. Wanna see some first class people make first class art in front of your very eyes? This is it. It’s art about war and romance. A chick-show for intelligent guys. Go thou and get tickets ahead of time.
John Munger has been performing, teaching, choreographing, researching and writing about dance for about 40 years. He teaches at Zenon, day-jobs for Dance/USA, and still hasn’t gotten much of it right.