|Long Beach Opera's Akhnaten. Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff|
Each year at the end of July, Las Vegas’ College of Southern Nevada presents its annual Dance in the Desert Festival. The three mixed-repertory programs cover a lot of dance territory — from various forms of modern dance and ballet to tap, from bordering on the trite to the profound, from the technically amazing to the likeable and earnestly amateur. The performances generally offer a broad range of dance experiences so important to a city that is seeing its performance venues rapidly disappearing.
The Festival presents favorite dancers and companies and introduces new artists to Festival attendees. Professional modern dance company, Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre, is a perennial favorite and can be counted on to showcase new works, along with presenting at least one past audience favorite. This year, the company is bringing a new work by Stephanie Maxim set to music by Vivaldi (untitled at this time), Part 1 of Émigré (2000), and the popular duet, A La Fosse (a tribute to Bob Fosse).
In between their annual festival appearances, the Brodie company, like most of the other Festival participants, presents its own season, conducts classes, and explores new choreographic approaches. However, this past spring, Company Director Nannette Brodie was presented with a new challenge — to choreograph dance material for the Long Beach Opera production of the Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten. In addition to the singing, acting, and orchestral components, the production also included cutting-edge video work.
I thought Dance Vine readers would like a glimpse into the challenges inherent in this type of collaboration.
Dance Vine: You are usually the person in charge of the direction of your choreography. How did you adapt to working in an environment where the choreography is a part of a larger production?
Nannette Brodie: In the 1980s, I choreographed and danced in many musical theater productions in Southern California, so the idea of working in a larger production under a director was familiar. It was also a bit like working on a film, considering all the use of video and live camera projection in the production. The most important thing to remember is that you have to step back as a choreographer and try your best to understand and interpret the vision of the director.
Akhnaten director, Andreas Mitsiek, thought in a strongly visual manner for this project, which was familiar for me as I am also a visual artist as well as a choreographer. We spent a lot of time together looking at books on Egypt, full of photos and drawings from which we could abstract ideas. This is the way I work on my own choreographic works — a lot of research from the artist renderings, cultural history, anthropology, etc. Andreas’ vision was to render this opera with a strong contemporary feel, achieving a style unlike any earlier productions of the work — movement, costume, scenery, visual effects, lighting — all different. And we did accomplish this.
In Akhnaten, what role did the choreography play? Is it an integral part of the storytelling?
The choreography was very important to the production as it created the ongoing design of the place and time. The dancers were designed to be like sculpture or bas relief with gesture carrying out the storytelling. Yet we were not signing the story. It was more about imagery, in that I did not create long sequences for the opera. Instead, I created images, moments that could be interchangeable and used in various places throughout the opera to further the story.
The dancers had to be able to improvise and change from a chosen list of visuals or movement shapes. So, in essence, many parts of the choreography was designed to always be slightly different from performance to performance. After the last night’s performance, people said that the dancers carried the imagery and story, helping the audience feel the place and time of the events.
How was the rehearsal process structured? When did you bring the dance material into the opera rehearsals?
Months before we began any choreographic work, the artistic staff began with meetings to discuss stage design and to lay out each scene. Our audition for the opera was in October. As we needed 12 dancers for the production, I brought in additional dancers, ones who could keep the more rigorous schedule needed.
We rehearsed by ourselves at the dance studio for a few weeks; the last four weeks, we met with the singers and opera staff at the Opera’s facilities in Long Beach. Andreas visited our rehearsals and gave us ideas and feedback about what he liked and whether we were going in the right direction.
Some musicians and dancers have found Philip Glass’s music to be challenging to perform. Did you find it so? If yes, why; if not, why not?
I love Phillip Glass’s music and find the ongoing flow of it so beautiful and inviting for dance. I have one piece in my company’s repertoire that uses two of his compositions; it has become a classic with the company. I know from the point of view of the singers and orchestra, that this opera is difficult due to the repetitions and the changes in meter. There is one section in the opera, where I have to count a steady beat of 4/4 over the music for the dancers to follow, because the meter changes so often. We needed to do something opposing the music for the visual effect we needed.
Had you ever worked on an opera before this? Would you do it again?
This is my first opera, and the process has been great. I liked all the preplanning and being part of a production team. Of course to have my first opera to be one by Phillip Glass truly was inviting for me. And then, when I watched the inventive work of our video artist engineer, Frieder Weiss, I couldn’t wait to work alongside his amazing artistry. The production team from Director Andreas Mitsiek, to Frieder and all the talented singers, musicians, designers and my dancers, made this opera a great experience for me and the company.
We hope that he asks us to work with them again many times. I think the Long Beach Opera and the Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre are a great match!
Dance in the Desert Festival
July 29, 7:00 p.m.
July 30, 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m.
College of Southern Nevada, Charleston Campus
Nicholas J. Horn Theatre
3200 E. Cheyenne Avenue, North Las Vegas
Nannette Brodie Dance Theatre
1840 Snowden Ave
Long Beach, CA 90815
[Originally published at California Literary Review, July 15, 2011.]