[Dixielandjazz] New Ways to Present Old Stories/Music - Was Audience Connection

Steve barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Oct 2 13:06:13 PDT 2004

Tim Eldred wrote, (polite snip)

>New approaches to music?  (Personally, I love when a band finds a new approach,
>rhythm or beat to an old song that makes it fresh and alive, instead of the
>same old, same old with a different face.)  I don't know the answers (altho I
>can envision a host of possibilities), but hope that this music I love and feel
>in my soul can keep finding a way to re-invent itself to find an ongoing

Talking about Re-invention, consider the below; Long and about Opera, but
many parallels to his thread.

Like maybe Bill Gunter could attach himself to a bungee cord and fly through
the air while strumming his novelty guitar, dressed as a Rhinemaiden or a
Valkyrie? :-) VBG.

Steve Barbone

October 2, 2004 - New York Times

Rhinemaidens Turn Bungee Jumpers By BRUCE WEBER

CHICAGO, Sept. 28 - Stagecraft is often about teamwork and machinery, an
illusion created by artists and props coalescing in tenuous balance. There
can't be a much starker illustration of this than what has been going on at
the Civic Opera House here, as the Lyric Opera of Chicago prepares to
reprise its memorable production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, in which, among
other startling things, the Rhinemaidens perform on bungee cords and the
Valkyries are propelled on their ride by trampolines.

Directed by August Everding, the Lyric "Ring" was first performed in its
entirety in 1996 - the individual operas had begun to appear three years
earlier - and it is being restaged next spring as the crowning event in the
Lyric opera's 50th anniversary season. But on Saturday, in a kind of
foretaste, "Das Rheingold," the first of the four "Ring" operas, opens for a
run on its own. (The final performance is Nov. 6.)

The opera, you may recall, opens underwater, in the depths of the Rhine,
where the unsightly dwarf Alberich is being taunted by the nubile
Rhinemaidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde. During a recent rehearsal,
sustaining the Rhinemaidens' liquid grace was the focus of the director,
Herbert Kellner (formerly an assistant to Everding, who died in 1999), and
the choreographer, Debra Brown.

"Flutter, flutter, flutter," Ms. Brown instructed the three gymnasts
embodying the Rhinemaidens, as they dangled and bounced on their bungees.
"You've got to flutter upstage, and don't stop fluttering once you're up

In performance, on John Conklin's set, the Rhinemaidens do their fluttering
behind a blue-green scrim that obscures (more or less) the bungees from the
audience and turns the stage into a mammoth aquarium. Ms. Brown's midair
choreography gives the illusion of synchronized swimming. And the three
gymnasts - Karen Hoyer, Beth Stare and Erika Gilfether - mouth the words of
the German libretto, lip-synching as the actual singers (a soprano and two
mezzos), gathered in shadow at the corner of the stage, belt out Wagner's
lush leitmotifs. From the audience it all seems a lovely and persuasive
fantasy of musical life underwater.

But behind the scenes, the individual elements of this picture are easily
discerned. For one thing, you can see the three gymnasts fixed in their
waist harnesses and suspended between two bungees. To change direction they
yank on one or the other; to soar upward, they pull on both at once.

The individual bungee mechanisms are remarkable for their ingenuity and

For each of the gymnasts, the two bungees are joined at their apex, some 60
feet above the stage. A single strand is thrown over a pulley and descends
to the floor in the wings, where it is held by a "puller," a stagehand with
substantial biceps who is very much a part of the choreography.

"The guys have to help you fly," said Ms. Stare, a dancer and aerialist.
"They've got our backs, literally."

It is the puller, working in tandem with the gymnast, who controls how
lightly she is able to touch down on the stage floor, or how smoothly she
rises to the trapeze suspended in the rafters.

"It's all timing," said Jeff Streichhirsch, a puller holding tight to Ms.
Gilfether's elastic rein. A lot of his job, he explained, has to do with
minimizing the slack in the bungee as Ms. Gilfether rises and falls, so she
isn't the victim of an unexpected catapult.

"They're pumping, and we're pulling," Mr. Streichhirsch added. "The
trickiest part is when she's reaching for the trapeze."

Nonetheless the gymnasts say that their midair dancing is not only great fun
- "a blast," Ms. Scare said - but also the easiest part of their task. For
one thing, each had to learn to sing a role, in German, the better to
lip-sync and act her part.

"I don't know how Britney Spears does it," said Ms. Gilfether, an actress
who works in a Chicago circus.

In addition, the choreography calls for each of them, periodically, to
alight on the stage and walk, no mean feat with a persistent skyward tug at
your waist. In fact, it's the uncertainty of their contact with the floor
that is the most dangerous part of the dance.

"On the ground, it's hard to figure mechanically," said Ms. Gilfether, after
a run-through when she clunked her toes against a prop serving as a boulder.

Ms. Hoyer added, "The other thing that's a killer is trying to keep still
when you're in the air." Ms. Hoyer, who works for the Big Apple Circus's
"clown-care unit," a troupe that makes hospital visits in Chicago, was in
the original cast of Everding's "Rheingold," and she is reprising her role
as the bungee-incarnation of Wellgunde.

"When we did it the first time," she said, "no one had ever done bungees in
opera before, and we spent most of the time figuring out what we could do.
There's an aspect of risk when you push it far enough to be on the edge of
comfort, and this time we're pushing it."

Indeed, in 1993, when this production had its premiere, bungees were so new
in the world - and not just in the world of opera - that the word hadn't
even come into common usage. Reviewing the production in The New York Times,
Edward Rothstein spoke of the Rhinemaidens as being "held aloft by elastic

Asked how things are different this time around, Ms. Brown laughed. "We're
12 years into bungee research," she said. "But they still don't allow you to
carve anything in cement. It's a great way to perform in the here and now,
because it makes the performing environment just a little unstable. Each
breath is a commitment to the unknown.

Now 49, Ms. Brown, a former gymnast and gymnastics coach, has choreographed
half a dozen operas, including John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" at
the Metropolitan Opera, but she is probably best known for her work with
Cirque du Soleil. She had used bungees only once before, in a 1992 Cirque
show, "Saltimbanco," but she doesn't claim credit for using them in the
"Ring." It was Everding who suggested it, she said, but she was eager and

"There's always been an element of spectacle to opera, after all," she said,
adding that the seeming opposition of the art forms, the rough-and-tumble
circus versus the refined and rehearsal-perfected opera, adds valuable
tension to the stage.

"Circus is the humblest of art forms and opera the most prestigious," she
said. "Circus comes from Gypsies, it usually doesn't have a script and it's
based on the uniqueness of individuals. The most important thing you can
bring to it is intuition."

This quality is especially evident with the bungees, she said, which turn
any choreography from a strict step-by-step plan of maneuvering into a
general movement outline and a crossing of fingers and hoping for the best.

"Every time you rehearse or perform, something unpredictable happens," she
said. "So every time you do it, you're not only practicing; you're learning
how to cope when something goes wrong."

Ms. Brown is already looking ahead to "Die Walküre," the second opera in the
"Ring" cycle, which features, in its climactic third act, the famous "Ride
of the Valkyries," the procession of warrior maidens to Valhalla. In the
Lyric's "Ring," the Valkyries cross the stage on four trampolines set at a
substantial height, launching themselves in grand leaps from one to the
next, carrying spears and performing an occasional midair somersault.

"The trampoline is a much more violent partner than a bungee," Ms. Brown
said. "It doesn't care what you do. It throws you right back out."
Trampolinists, she added, are different from other acrobats. Gymnasts, she
said, are always fighting gravity. "Trampolinists sit in the air."

You could see what she meant at a recent Valkyrie audition. For an hour,
half a dozen young women, some familiar with the trampoline, others less so,
leaped under the eye of Ms. Brown not to music of Wagner but to rhythmic
reggae, striking the martial pose of Valkyries in stride at the apex of
their leaps.

"Patience in the air!" Ms. Brown shouted at them. "Don't rush air time!"

The women, occasionally avoiding disaster by only a hair, were smiling
nervously, breathing heavily and wondering what they had gotten themselves

"You have to be able to bail yourself out," Ms. Brown explained. "Good

This is opera?

"It's a little freaky up there," one of the aspiring Valkyries admitted.

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