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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

What’s Behind the Façade?

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Sadly, Façade: An Entertainment, a collaborative production of Danceworks Performance Company, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and Milwaukee Opera Theatre, was ruined for me by the unworkable acoustics of the Milwaukee Theatre's massive lobby, where it was performed last weekend. This many-storied airplane hangar of a space, with its great domed ceiling and countless alcoves, made it impossible to understand a word of the experimental Edith Sitwell poetry, the basis of the work. This was true despite the valiant efforts of four fine singers to articulate the tongue-twisting texts against composer William Walton’s instrumental accompaniment. The poems and music were premiered in 1923 when this kind of thing was avant-garde.

In 1931, the great English choreographer Frederick Ashton raised the piece's reputation by setting a ballet to it. Here, DPC Artistic Director Dani Kuepper provided choreography from beginning to end for six DPC company dancers and seven guests. MOT Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik had her four singers/speakers move among and often with the dancers. MCO Artistic Director Richard Hynson conducted and sipped tea with his six-person orchestra. All of these artists are more than capable. Their collaboration last season in Astor Piazzola's Maria De Buenos Aires was a triumph. It seemed a coup to have the Milwaukee Theatre for their second collaborative offering.  All the greater my disappointment.

If we can't make out the words, the chance of understanding Sitwell's intention is eliminated. The word "façade" implies that there is something behind the mask, even if the surface is the focus.

The acoustics were kind enough to Walton's music, a jaunty trifle. I have great respect for Dani Kuepper's artistry, but her straightforward choreography only underlined the score's outdated preciousness. Or perhaps it's simply not my cup of tea. We witnessed privileged English people frolic on a beach in summer costumes from the 1920s.

The younger folk enjoyed badminton, croquet and a game of catch with beach balls, while the older people basked in beach chairs, sipped drinks and read books. Perhaps the size of the performance space demanded lots of people moving constantly, but nothing was of consequence. Several dancers were partly individualized by dint of gender or race. Otherwise, in identical beachwear and performing similar movements, they seemed interchangeable. The exception was Kim Johnson-Rockafellow wearing a white hoop skirt—suggesting a debutante—dancing a brief solo with pride and wistful sadness.

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