An Entertaining Façade
Danceworks, Milwaukee Opera and Chamber Orchestra collaborate on a modern classic
Danceworks Performance Company, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra join forces to bring Edith Sitwell and William Walton’s Façade to the stage. This is the second consecutive season of collaboration for the three arts organizations, having produced Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires in fall 2011. Façade will be directed by MOT’s Jill Anna Ponasik, choreographed by DPC’s Dani Kuepper and conducted by MCO’s Richard Hynson. The setting will be unique, the Milwaukee Theatre Atrium, where the audience will sit in the round.
Originally a set of poems written by avant-garde British poet Edith Sitwell, Façade was given an instrumental accompaniment by the young William Walton in 1922. The resulting work, Façade—An Entertainment, features recited text with music to accompany it. There have been several versions of the piece since its first private performance in the drawing room of the Sitwells’ London home.
Sitwell’s Façade poems have been called both nonsensical and meaningful. The Observer has called her “the enemy of the old…and the cheerleader of the new.” The Façade poems are full of imagery and dance rhythms, which sparkle in Walton’s score for six players. Naturally lending itself to dance, the work was first cast as a ballet by Günter Hess for the German Chamber Dance Theatre in 1929; it later was choreographed by Frederick Ashton in 1931.
After working on the Piazzolla opera, the artistic team from the three Milwaukee companies decided that they wanted to collaborate again. MCO Principal Cellist Scott Tisdel found Façade, brought it to Richard Hynson and the project was born.
The Ponasik-Kuepper production builds on the idea of the drawing room elite engaging in leisure-time activities. They introduce a storyline of two couples embarking on a British seaside vacation. “We have a badminton dance, a carousel dance, a bicycle-built-for-two dance, a croquet dance and a dance based on the ‘bathing-beauty’ pin-up girls of the 1920s,” said Kuepper. “Our dancers also become the environment for the vacationers [the MOT artists], at one point becoming the sea for the couples’ arrival.” Kuepper “quirked up” the choreography in keeping with the spirit of Sitwell’s poetry and Walton’s music, which she says “Richard Hynson calls ‘Dr. Seuss for Adults.’”
Sitwell’s recited text combined with Walton’s music lands Façade somewhere between Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. It is more consonant than the Schoenberg, but the vocalists are less pitched in Façade, where they are not given the same sprechstimme (half-spoken, half-sung) text as in Pierrot Lunaire.
The artistic team is enthusiastic about the atypical venue, which they found in their search for a ballroom space at the Milwaukee Theatre. This marks the first time that a production will be performed in the Atrium setting. “We visited many spaces, and were amazed to find how well the Milwaukee Theatre Atrium suited this work,” says Ponasik. “It provided an interesting challenge, and we loved the shape of the space.” It also offers unique opportunities for the audience, as they will experience the work in different ways depending on where they’re seated in the round.
“Working with MCO and DPC has been a rewarding experience that only gets better,” says Ponasik. “Our production of Façade dovetails with the restlessness of anticipation for spring. We hope that this lively, interesting work can be a beautiful distraction.”
Performances take place at 7:30 p.m., April 25-26; and at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., April 27, in the Milwaukee Theatre Atrium, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave.