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Chicago Tribune from Chicago, Illinois • Page 4-4

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4 Chicago Tribune ArtsEntertainment Section 4 Monday, November 2013 Wagnerian chalice half-full IN PERFORMANCE The Nexus Project Dancers, 'stories' charm, confuse When: Through Dec. 1 Where: Mana Fine Arts, 2233 S. Throop St. Running time: 75 minutes Tickets: $5 suggested donation or pay what you can; brownpaper By Laura Molzahn Special to the Tribune Watching the Nexus Project's debut is like having a front-row seat at a fun, funny, sometimes emotionally laden mixed martial arts contest. Performed by Benjamin Wardell and Michel Rodriguez, the two-man company's no-name piece offers a super-creative, even astonishing dance experience.

It's also inchoate. Running through Dec. 1 at Mana Fine Arts, this open-ended show is easy to watch but hard to describe. Both men are distinguished performers. Wardell left Hubbard Street in 2011 to develop his own interests, later recruiting Rodriguez an award-winning choreographer and dancer, formerly of Hedwig for Nexus.

Now also members of Lucky Plush, they reflect its influence in their humorous, apparently off-the-cuff stage chat. Going further, they also talk to the audience, whose responses help determine which "stories" four of them at this point, plus transitional sections to perform and when. "Stories" is a loose term. Some are, some aren't And the movement material was not purpose-built. Though 12 well-known Chicago choreographers created duets specifically for Wardell and Rodriguez, the performers cut them up and remixed the bits.

So the constant isn't a choreographer's vision but the daredevil dancers', both former gymnasts. While the sturdier Wardell tends to be pitcher or catcher, Rodriguez more often acts as airborne projectile. In the "Cuban story," he walks the balance beam of War dell's lumpy, twisting, rolling body on the floor. Tomas Tomasson, top, and Daveda Karanas in dress rehearsal JOSE M. OSORIOTRIBUNE PHOTO for "Parsifal." When: Through Nov.

29 Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive Tickets: at 312-332-2244 and lyric Continued from Page 1 and "Les Miserables but nothing by Wagner, is making his Lyric debut So is the formidable South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, re-creating his signature role as the wise old knight Gurnemanz. Caird brings credits mainly from the spoken and musical theater, including more than 20 productions for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. Far from imposing anything conceptual on Wagner's convoluted text (a bubbling stew of allusions to Christian religious belief, Buddhist thought, the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, and more), the director contents himself with telling the story and applying postmodern visual touches that decorate the drama but do not interpret it. In this adult fairy tale, naive innocence, as embodied by the rash youth Parsifal (Groves), vanquishes an old curse and restores moral order to the brotherhood of the knights of the Holy Grail at the castle of Montsalvat in medieval Spain.

The spare, open, quasi-abstract set and costume designs by Johan Engels, illuminated by Duane Schuler, complement the diaphanous beauty of sound pouring from the orchestra pit Unspoiled nature, as depicted in the browns, grays and greens of the opening scene in the figurative forest outside Montsalvat, gives way to an abstract Grail temple dominated by a large, golden Buddha-hand that symbolizes the imperiled brotherhood of the knights under their stricken leader, Am-fortas (Thomas Hampson). The king suffers from an agonizing wound that will not heal. The injury was inflicted by the evil magician Klingsor (Tomas To-masson) during Amfortas' tryst with Klingsor's minion, the temptress Kundry (Daveda Karanas). Only when a prophesied redeemer is able to reclaim Amfortas' sacred spear can the ruler and his monastic order be returned to bodily and spiritual health. Having been initially turned away from membership in the Grail brotherhood, Parsifal winds up in Klingsor's enchanted garden.

The hero resists the blandishments of the sorcerer's Flower Maidens and Kundry's attempted seduction, thereby acquiring the self-knowledge and compassion needed to cure Amfortas and redeem the brotherhood. The stage designs go all "Star Wars" on us in the second act, set in Klingsor's magic garden. With the top half of his head painted white and the bottom half red, the villain bestrides an elevator that pours dry-ice fog and is encircled by red fluorescent tubes. The Flower Maidens enact flowing, Loie Fuller-style choreography in gauzy, billowing costumes that suggest giant butterfly wings and petals drenched in pretty pastels. Parsifal snatches the purloined spear, whereupon Klingsor is impaled by a red laser beam, striking a pose that confusingly evokes the Crucifixion imagery of Renaissance paintings.

Unfortunately, Caird's solutions to Wagner's more problematic staging directions fall flat at several crucial junctures. IN PERFORMANCE Caldarella's By Laura Molzahn Special to the Tribune Here's why people-watching is so fun. Everyone is hard-wired with a set of movement habits derived from the individual body and personality, the family and culture. The way the head is held or the hips roll, the rhythms of an action as simple as walking combine to form an identity unique as a fingerprint Sometimes the dance world devalues that uniqueness. But Paige Caldarella celebrates it in A work with so much going on needs unifying elements.

The stage is one. Our own personal cave carved out of an empty warehouse space, it's ringed on three sides by a single row of seats, warmed by Todd L. Clarke's lighting, and enclosed by dozens of brilliant, hanging Rosalie Parr quilts. A big wooden bucket o' fun, suspended over the stage and lowered on demand, is a continuing source of amusement, as are most of the interactions, spoken and silent, between audience members and performers. Language itself is a unifier, though understanding is rare.

The recorded music is sung in Yiddish and Spanish. And though Wardell tells a personal story with great skill, somehow connecting astronomy with his mother's faithful care-giving, Rodriguez struggles to speak when he's left alone onstage. In fact, with its many experiments governed by arcane, frequently broken rules, the Nexus Project show seems doomed to occasional failure. While the section that (always) begins it triumphantly rides the waves of rollicking Barry Sisters tunes, the anticlimactic "Finale" opens with talk-show banality and ends in an ambiguous display of affection. That's odd, because what carries the work is the warmth it creates.

in fists. Though the greatest emotion lies in the solos, a doppelganger duet for Green and Elson toward the end is moving in its unity, its contrasts, its messy everydayness and poignant invention. Overall, "Off Center" reveals Caldarella's knack for releasing and regaining control, for formal variation and efficient structure. Warm, sharp, generous, she's someone you should get to know better. of Act 1 and sang his music with bright sound and winning clarity and focus.

But his narrow-bore, essentially lyric tenor does not command the stentorian Germanic sound one wants in a Parsifal. Crucial moments such as "Amfortas! Die Wunde!" Parsifal's cry after he rejects Kundry's ldss lie at the outer limits of his capability, and he appeared to have little voice left by the time the wiser, world-hardened Parsifal took command of the reborn brotherhood. Karanas, who was making her company debut as Kundry, brought plenty of gutsy intensity to her portrayal of this strange, schizophrenic character, who's part servant, part prostitute, part penitent Vocally she seemed comfortable as long as the music remained within her pleasing middle and lower registers, as was the case during Act 2 when Kundry put her seductive moves on Parsifal. Alas, her lack of a secure high extension yielded tight, bleached high notes. Debuting bass Runi Brattaberg delivered the old king Titurel's brief offstage utterances.

The supporting roles of unnamed knights, esquires and Flower Maidens were taken with admirable care and commitment by various past and present members of the Ryan Opera Center. John Irvin and Richard Ollarsaba sang especially well as the first and second Grail knights. Twitter jvonrhein The director doesn't know what to do with the Grail ceremony beyond moving the communicants around in stately, concentric patterns. The Good Friday service in Act 3 comes off as a sentimental letdown after the high seriousness of everything that has gone before. Kundry is allowed to live (she crouches tenderly at the side of the healed Amfortas), while the newly crowned Parsifal gathers children in the palm of the Buddha-hand to celebrate the community's rebirth.

The kids pass the holy chalice from one to the other as if it were a candy dish. Other theatrical embellishments work more successfully. Aerialists dressed as white swans and a dove hover over several scenes, and choreographer Tim Claydon has the dancers intertwine, Pilobolus-style, to create a clever semblance of Kundry's mare bucking and rearing its legs. It is easy to imagine a bolder, darker, more probing "Parsifal" than this one. The Metropolitan Opera's starkly modern new production, which debuted this year and has been broadcast in movie theaters and on PBS, is far more thought-provoking.

Somewhere between Lyric's ugly, high-concept "Parsifal" of 2002 and this beautiful, concept-free "Parsifal" lies a treatment of this elusive masterpiece that's closer to the contemporary Wagnerian ideal. Davis rightly treats the music as a grand, sumptuous tone poem for orches- 'Off Center' her new quartet, "Off Center," which was performed over the weekend at Links Hall. (I saw it Friday.) Along the way, she also questions what's "normal" and shows how individual movement traits can be taken on by others to create a rich community. And though she hints at the identity politics favored in the academic dance world the female dances ballet while the men vogue "Off Center" is never didactic. Instead, this entertaining piece creates a flesh-and-blood Utopia governed tra with voices.

He tends toward brisk tempos, but nothing feels hurried; the long line unfolds seamlessly and always the textures and sonorities he draws from the orchestra are clear, well-balanced and glowing. A couple of glitches from the brass on opening night did not detract from the splendor of the orchestra's playing overall, which applied equally well to the fully involved singing of the Lyric chorus, prepared by chorus master Michael Black. Of the principal singers, Youn came the closest to today's Wagnerian gold standard in the deep, sonorous majesty with which he delivered Gurnemanz's narration and the wonderfully humane quality of his performance as a whole. Tomasson also went full out with Klingsor's treacherous music, really singing the part as opposed to blustering his way through it, as so many baritones do. Hampson did not sound in optimum vocal form Saturday night, when his baritonal projection sounded tight and lacked crucial heft.

Still, his portrayal was incisive and intelligent enough to convey Amfortas' guilt-ridden desperation. Groves certainly looked the part of the callow youth is on target by Caldarella's formal ingenuity and spare, economical structure. Like most choreographers, Caldarella collaborated with her dancers on the movement Unlike most, she highlights their individuality in an opening series of extended solos. Though dance doctrine bans performers who are too tall, too heavy, too gay the list goes on these four extraordinary movers first make us see that their defining traits, however "abnormal," are precious. "Off Center" celebrates Jessica NEXUS PROJECT PHOTO Benjamin Wardell, left, and Michel Rodriguez form the two-man company, the Nexus Project.

with celebration of uniqueness Duffy's muscularity and power, Philip Elson's honed technique and hilarious vamping, J'Sun Howard's sensuous abandon and dainty hands, Damon Green's macho strength and jittery reserve. Varied stage and sound designs also honor uniqueness. Julie Ballard's bold lighting choices and a score that ranges from old Bren-da Lee recordings to neoclassical cello to electronic washes sharply define individual sections. Sara Perez's costumes feature both distinctive accents (an elaborate wrist corsage, a stocking cap) and unifying elements: sparkly insets, camouflage insets. Where so many choreographers seem obsessed with speed and detail, Caldarella takes her time, allowing the viewer to absorb the dancers' signature moves and their migrations to others: a toe scraping the floor in a rond de jambe; fingers scraping the floor in a fall forward from the waist; a sudden fall onto the hip from standing; elbows pulled back pugnaciously, hands.

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