Linked Dance Theatre
The Center at West Park
New York, New York
May 5, 2018
— by Jerry Hochman
There are multiple levels of performing art – maybe not in most locations, but certainly in New York City. They range from high caliber, high publicity, high budget, and high expectation dance and theater companies, to emerging companies that have their artistic director’s vision and sometime the nucleus of a performance group, make the most of whatever resources they can muster, in some cases demand a greater audience suspension of disbelief, and fill every available nook and cranny to be found.
Linked Dance Theatre (“Linked”) is one of these emerging companies. I had not previously heard of the group, which was conceived in 2009 by Co-Artistic Director Kendra Slack, but they had their first performance in 2014, and have already presented multiple theater/dance “experiences” in the four years since. What makes Linked different isn’t so much its merger of dance and theater, its goal of telling stories through movement, its collaborative nature, or its focus on “immersive” events. All these processes have been utilized many times before. But having seen its latest immersive experience, Beloved/Departed, a different take on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, what really makes it different is a quality of rough-edged simplicity (or calculated naiveté) which I might find worrisome in other contexts, but here … I think Linked may be on to something.
There’s also something immensely likeable about a group of performers who appear to believe in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and the perception of a lack of polish (which carries with it an absence of artificiality) may be exactly the impression they want to convey. It’s part of its charm. More importantly, in the performance I saw it was undeniable that they had their audience on their side, and paying attention – admirable achievements in any theatrical context.
Beloved/Departed also works in large part because of the space it’s in. I don’t know whether Linked’s artistic staff selected the Center at West Park because it accommodated their vision of the program, or if they created the program to take advantage of the available space. But regardless of how Beloved/Departed came to be, the space inside the West Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is an inspired location. This old, landmark church has more nooks and crannies than an English muffin, with seemingly redundant entryways leading to and from balconies, basements, “hidden” rooms, chapels, reception halls, and a main sanctuary. It too, is rough-edged (my understanding is that it’s in the process of a long-term restoration), but, like the performance, that’s part of its charm. And it’s the perfect venue for a wedding, reception, and honeymoon trip to the Underworld.
The “standard” Orpheus/Eurydice myth (recognizing that there really isn’t a single “standard” myth) is well-known, so I won’t repeat it here – and Beloved/Departed departs from the standard anyway. Suffice it to say that, like the church’s structure, the myth provides the framework for the event, as well as a point of departure, and it focuses on explaining things that happen in the myth in a contemporary, and human, way. Two things are important here: first (and contrary to some commentaries), what happens is not Eurydice’s fault (although she’s quick to depart an unexpectedly difficult situation); and second, love isn’t enough to sustain a relationship – she didn’t really know Orpheus, and although she’s his beloved (and he hers), she discovers that he’s a self-absorbed musician with … issues. The ultimate “moral of the story,” at least on the surface, is kinda sappy and predictable – for a relationship to work there has to be a level of mutual understanding, respect, and trust. But Beloved/Departed isn’t so much about “something” that happened as it is about “why” what happened happened; and on “how” the story is told, rather than “that” it’s told. That it also may have a more subtle, and more profound, intellectual underpinning is something I’ll address later.
The audience is invited to attend the wedding of Orpheus and Eurydice. Literally. In the church/theater’s Sanctuary, with a real altar/podium, real albeit dilapidated pews, rich (maybe mahogany) wood trim, and stained glass windows. Before entering, one must select whether to be a member of the bride or groom’s party, and the opportunity to be one of a limited number of bridesmaids or groomsmen is available to those willing to pay a little bit more for their ticket. Shortly after arriving, guests are greeted by a pixilated man wearing a sport jacket with indicia of achievement attached like merit badges (later identified as Hymen, the god of marriage, who will perform the ceremony), and a woman in a party dress and heels (Aphrodite, the hostess with the mostess). [Hymen, according to one account, is the son of Apollo and one or another muse – which would make him Orpheus’s brother or half-brother; by another account, Hymen is the son of Aphrodite and Dionysus, half-siblings (maybe) to each other and Apollo (who maybe was also Eurydice’s father – unless her real father was maybe Dionysus, who may or may not have had his own connection with Orpheus. Among the gods, there’s no such thing as six degrees of separation.] They escort the guests to their seats, a string quartet plays (live), and the Sanctuary space is decorated in celebratory white fabric and ribbon. At one point, Aphrodite blows kisses to the attendees from a perch on Mt. Balcony.
Prior to the ceremony, and with the guests seated in the Sanctuary, Orpheus and Eurydice are seen as silhouettes behind a translucent sheet on the altar/podium, chatting about how much they love each other, and Eurydice warns Orpheus not to turn around and look at her because it’s bad luck to look upon a bride in her gown before the wedding ceremony. That’s when I realized that Beloved/Departed was more sophisticated than it first appeared.
The ceremony begins; the musicians play; Orpheus sings. Without prompting, the Guests stand as the Bride walks down the aisle (well, this is a wedding; that’s what guests do), clumsy but cute vows are exchanged, and then Hymen invites all to the reception, upstairs, where guests are offered champagne (alcoholic or non), the bride and groom make their first formal appearance, songs are sung, dances are danced, and paper airplanes (possibly representing memories) are tossed. And then … something happens. While Apollo is offering Orpheus a wedding gift – his very own Muse to be inspired by and maybe to romp on the mountain with, Eurydice, looking very upset, has a dramatic conversation with Artemis, her maid of honor and protector, and then disappears. When Orpheus discovers that Eurydice is no longer there (it takes awhile, since he was otherwise occupied with the Muse), he runs off to find her. Half the guests follow him, the other half stay with Apollo and Hymen. And the musicians separate as well, one or two popping up like mushrooms in one location; another one or two in another, as the Eurydice Hunt proceeds up, down, and around the church.
The division of the cast, musicians, and the audience at this point (and subsequent subdivisions and occasional reconnections) is one of the hooks that makes Beloved/Departed work as well as it does. The audience doesn’t just see the performers from different points of view, they have, in part, unique visual (and presumably emotional) experiences. And no one in one half of the audience knows what the other half is doing.
In the end, all guests are shepherded back into the Sanctuary to see Orpheus beg Hades for Eurydice’s release while Eurydice is seen behind that same translucent curtain on the Sanctuary podium, dancing or maybe trying to break free – it’s not clear (which may be the intent). Hades relents, warns Orpheus not to turn back … and the audience, knowing exactly what will happen next, is glued to the Sanctuary aisle and door waiting for the inevitable – which becomes a conversation between Orpheus and Eurydice’s image about trust.
As noted, everything about Beloved/Departed seems simple. The libretto is simple (and credited to the cast); the choreography is simple (and also credited to the cast) – but simple doesn’t mean mindless. The choreography and text, coupled with the music and lyrics (by Brendan Littlefield), the sets and lighting (by Cheyenne Sykes), and the costume design (by Nicholas Smith) are appropriate for a piece that emphatically doesn’t wear its underlying intelligence on its sleeve.
Keeping in mind that the cast are supposed to be relatively one-dimensional gods or demi-gods, each member of the cast left a distinct impression. If anyone in this production is the villain of the piece, it’s Apollo. Calvin Tsang plays him as a smug, narcissistic, doting but distant father (and best man) who gifts Orpheus with one of his own muses without the slightest concern that Eurydice might not appreciate competition for Orpheus’s time and affection. As the Muse, Oliver Burke “Tillett” is an amiable and willing attraction (via his looks and his voice) that Orpheus cannot resist – and the fact that they look like twins implicitly raises the issue of Orpheus’s self-absorption. Kellyn Thornburg’s Artemis is cold and stiff and stern – not the most congenial of the gods, but appropriate for the goddess of virginity, the protector of young girls, the twin sister of Apollo, and the arch enemy of Aphrodite (though those interconnections are not developed – at least not as I was able to observe). Not coincidentally, she’s also the goddess of the hunt – in this case, the Eurydice Hunt – who may have convinced Eurydice to cut her losses and run. Maya Gonzalez’s Hermes here is the friendliest of the gods, and the one who moves most freely between gods and humans. But his/her function here is as a conduit (messenger) of deceptively simple questions and concepts – like, to Aphrodite (a former lover): how do you know when it (love) is real? It’s a cliche, but here it’s a multi-layered one: it’s raised in the context of Eurydice’s departure, but Hermes is really talking about him/herself and Aphrodite – who in turn is thinking of Adonis. Complicated.
As one might expect, Rita McCann’s Aphrodite is a strong character who’s been around the mountaintop a few times. But she’s not empty-headed – she wants everyone to be happy and to love each other, but knows that there’s a dark side to that mountain. Jordan Chlapecka’s Hades and Chloe Markewich’s Persephone were the show’s smooth as silk King and Queen of the Underworld. Chlapecka, who also directed the production and is Linked’s Co-Artistic Director, acted, appropriately, above it all – even when he was beneath it all. And Markewich, who I recognized immediately from my favorable impression of her in a prior performance (with the group Kinetic Architecture – yet more evidence that there are no small roles) seemed less well-developed as a character than others – perhaps because her character is primarily majestic-looking and moves elegantly, but doesn’t get to do or say much (although perhaps she did in a space that I didn’t see). The most interesting casting was Matt Engle, who evolved from being the effervescent Hymen to Charon, the gloomy transporter of souls to the Underworld.
But Joshua James’s Orpheus and Slack’s Eurydice were the show’s glue. If they and their love for each other weren’t believable, the performance wouldn’t be either. Both did excellent work as respectively, the golden-voiced (but not perfect – too polished wouldn’t have worked) and self-absorbed son of the sun god and the sweet as ambrosia goddess next door. Somehow, these two become gods that the audience cares about – and maybe that’s because they’re not gods.
I mentioned that there was one other aspect of Beloved/Departed that I thought was there, but if so, was so subtle that it was almost lost amid the rough-edged simplicity of the movement, the music, and the obvious message. Recognizing flaws and accepting responsibility are qualities essential to life among humans (something that the text alludes to in the closing scene), not qualities evident in gods, who have the power to act impulsively and without apparent consequence.
Seen in that light, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (and the extended story of what happened to Orpheus thereafter) is not about inexplicable departure and death, because neither of them “died”: their mythological deaths were euphemisms for leaving the realm of the gods. In that sense, perhaps the intended message of Beloved/Departed isn’t simplistic at all, but a much more complicated exposition on what it means to be human.
Performances of Beloved/Departure continue through May 18.