GELFAND’S WORLD - Not long ago, the Long Beach Opera put on a large but novel piece called The Romance of the Rose, which gained strongly positive reviews from prestigious critics on both coasts. Last weekend and next, the LBO maintains its tradition of always doing something new or different. The Horse is what comes of it.
In keeping with LBO practice of not worrying about operatic norms, this performance includes a sound designer (Cody Perkins) working a sound board, more or less as a DJ, except that he mixes music from a broad spectrum, including European classical, African, and near the end, spiritual and gospel sounds.
Before going into the other performers, let's set the scene.
Rancho Los Cerritos is the old home of a land grant space. The home stems from the mid-1800's and would fit in nicely in a movie about romance and drama at a hacienda. And Rancho Los Cerritos has a remarkable back yard (so to speak) and a garden which suited the purposes of this performance. There is a sort of canopied patch of dirt -- but the canopy is formed by trees and their leafy limbs, and a remarkable (and enormous) cactus formed of many vertical trunks. Add two or three lights, which vary in color from deep blue to sunset red, and you have a playing space. At one point in the performance, the playing space is lit in an eerie green, playing out one of the several moods generated in the piece.
In some old English short story, the playing surface might be called a dimly lit glade. So imagine the ghostlike figures surrounding the playing surface (itself a few yards across, roughly circular) with the drummers to the audience's far left, the vocalist to the far right, and the DJ (for lack of a better term) directly behind.
The performance begins with a line of people draped in white costumes -- more like bags than anything else -- with an opening barely large enough to show the face. We learn quickly that three of these ghosts/phantoms/spiritual creatures are going to supply percussion and a certain amount of vocal support. Let's give credit at the outset to the drummers: Evan Greer, Kevin Moore, and Nery Madrid.
There is also a costumed figure who turns out to be the female vocalist, performed by Alexis Vaughn. She has a beautiful voice which will bring the performance to a close with the sound of a spiritual. Vaughn and the drummers are joined by the sound board/sound designer Cody Perkins, who is almost hidden in the background.
And then there is the dancer, listed in the program as the Creator & Performer, played by Chris Emile. He enters dressed in white slacks, some sort of squarish board along the small of his back, and a scarf that wraps entirely around his face. He will dance and walk and posture throughout the 45 minutes of the performance, dominating the playing area.
So now that we have set the scene, let us consider the work itself and the stated meaning. I'm just going to borrow from the LBO program, so you can see how the pictures shown above stem from the original intent:
"Choreographer and dancer Chris Emile, last seen at LBO creating the innovative choreography for Les enfants terribles (2021), returns to live performance with an intimate new work that combines Emile’s exceptional movement direction with operatic ritual."
Emile moves around the playing surface, alternately taking poses, at one time unwrapping the scarf to reveal his face, and overall communicating the moods and anxt (what is the plural for anxt?) of the soul who has been possessed by some otherworldly force.
Here's how the program describes the back story:
"THE HORSE evokes the supernatural experience of spiritual possession. In Vodun tradition, a “horse” describes a person who has been possessed and is being “ridden” by a possessing deity. In combining somatic practice with theology and research into the origins of ballet, Emile reassesses how traditional balletic training regards the role of the performer/dancer. The resulting work embodies ancestral knowledge, reverence for African religions, and the human-divine connection while reclaiming the relationship between body and spirit as all are invited to witness and experience in this shared catharsis."
What this is not is a ballet or a modern dance concert, other than it incorporates elements of both, from time to time. It is as if Emile has the moves within him, but is holding back, only to release a bit of movement, and then to become introspective.
Some will find it mesmerizing, some won't understand it, and many will probably find something of both.
We should mention that The Horse is performed outdoors, in what the company refer to as a garden, and to me was that dimly lit glade. It has been chilly these past weeks, so the audience members were advised to dress warmly.
A side note that is becoming a substantial story: In attending LA Opera and Long Beach Opera over the past weeks, one thing is becoming increasingly clear, and that is the elevation of American-born and trained singers into the ranks of prestigious opera companies. This is no accident, and it suggests a tendency that will, in twenty years' time, generate a new form and perhaps a new vigor in what has been an old European holding for the past century and more. More of that at a later time.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])