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Monday, Feb. 24, 2014

Present Music and Danceworks go contemporary with 'Temptation's Snare'

Reinventing Stravinsky

‘Temptation’s Snare'
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Present Music has a bit of a history with Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, an experimental work he wrote a few years after his famous Rite of Spring. It was performed at Present Music’s very first concert, and Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim has worked it into two programs since. This weekend, he’s bringing it back once again—and it’s like nothing he’s ever done with the piece before.

That’s because this concert, “Temptation’s Snare,” blends Stravinsky’s chamber piece with contemporary works by the six-person New York City composer collective Sleeping Giant. They took The Soldier’s Tale as their jumping-off point for new, post-minimalist reimaginings, which they originally presented in 2012 as a work titled Histories, specifically designed to use the same seven instrumentalists as Stravinsky’s original. Stalheim says that adherence to Stravinsky’s orchestration has allowed for the two source materials to be interwoven into a completely new work that uses parts of each.

The Soldier’s Tale was written for a small ensemble of actor-dancers, and “Temptation’s Snare” is no different; Present Music is collaborating with Danceworks Performance Company on the project. The pairing makes sense. Both Present Music and Danceworks have been dedicated to collaboration with other artists throughout their long histories in Milwaukee (both recently hit milestone anniversaries: 30 years for Present Music and 20 for Danceworks). They’re also old hands at working with each other, most recently in “Water,” the opening show of Present Music’s 2011-12 season.

This collaboration is requiring as much reinvention on the dance side as the music side. Danceworks’ Artistic Director Dani Kuepper has designed all-new choreography for the fused score, and revamped the storyline to accommodate the music’s modern feel.

The original Soldier’s Tale is a soul-selling parable, in which a soldier trades his fiddle to the devil for a book that holds secrets to wealth and power. Kuepper says her choreography, and a new narration by Jason Powell, makes the story more contemporary. The soldier becomes a female violinist (played by Christal Wagner), her devilish prize a new age-y, believe-and-it-will-happen self-help book titled The Solution that actually works, and a new romantic partner replaces the original’s princess: a suave reality TV heartthrob in the vein of “The Bachelor” (played by guest artist Morgan Williams). Wagner will also be intermittently joined on stage by a trio of dancers playing serpentine satanic minions.

All these changes, Kuepper says, were calibrated to simplify the tale, making it easy to convey to an audience that may not be as experienced watching dance or listening to new music. “It’s a more direct relationship for the audience,” she says. “That’s the thing I’m really proud of.” The result is an adaptation of The Soldier’s Tale that feels more like a traditional work of musical theater, sans vocals.

Both Stalheim and Kuepper say the process of combining Stravinsky’s music with that of Sleeping Giant has been a challenging but rewarding experience. Originally, Kuepper says, her instinct was just to perform the Sleeping Giant works, thinking the segues would be too jarring.

But Stalheim was pro-fusion from the start, suggesting that the two works would amplify each other through their contrast, especially for audience members familiar with the Stravinsky work. Because Kuepper’s artists would need to start rehearsals much earlier than Stalheim’s musicians, he offered her the opportunity to take the lead on the arrangements, a decision which also gave her the opportunity to make the works’ intersection feel more natural. “I gave her the music for both and said ‘Do what you think works,’” Stalheim says.

The more Kuepper worked on the project, the more she came to agree with Stalheim’s earlier certainty. “Every time you listen to it, you find more,” she says, adding that combining the two helped her (and hopefully, will help the audience) realize exactly how avant garde and ahead of his time Stravinsky was. Together, the music sounds “thorny,” according to Kuepper, and Stravinsky’s slightly more melodic through-lines alternate with the atmospheric, often-minimalistic Sleeping Giant pieces to create a complicated mix that contrasts with the simplified story.

While Kuepper and her dancers prepare together, Stalheim says he and Present Music’s musicians will prepare independently, coming together just before the show opens at Next Act to make sure the staging works for both companies. That leaves him in a position to just be excited—excited to be doing The Soldier’s Tale again, excited to see the young artists of Sleeping Giant as inspired by the same piece that has inspired him for years and excited to see what their efforts with Danceworks will create this time around.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. March 6-8 and 2:30 p.m. March 9, at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, call 414-271-0711 or visit either presentmusic.org or danceworksmke.org.