Gilding the Lily 

By Ursula Pflug, Bill James
  • Laurence Lemieux in From the House of Mirth by James Kudelka for Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie / Photo by Paul Antoine Taillefer

From the House of Mirth (avant premiere)

James Kudelka, Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie

Peterborough May 5 - 6, 2012 

From the House of Mirth is a dance/opera inspired by Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, a true hybrid, where neither the dance nor the opera is intended to dominate. Heroine Lily Bart’s tragic story is told by four male singers and four female dancers, complemented by five chamber musicians playing violin, cello, harp, harmonium and piano. The four opera singers also participate in the lean and precise choreography – a rare occurrence. The show, which had its avant première at Peterborough’s Market Hall, was presented by Public Energy and created for Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, with whom director and choreographer James Kudelka has had a long-standing relationship.

As we enter, the cast and musicians are already onstage, arranged around the minimal, yet highly effective, set: a gazebo-like framework suggesting the outdoors at Bellomont, the Long Island estate of Judy and Gus Trenor in the novel. A chandelier hanging from its centre alludes to interior spaces, including the gaming tables that figure prominently in the plot. Lily Bart (danced by Laurence Lemieux) must keep up appearances by gambling at bridge, a pastime she can ill afford.

In the song Bridge, baritone Alex Dobson as Rosedale sings:

When they call you for cards you must play
Put your diamonds on the table
Hit the bitches with a club Losing will still pay your way
Though your bank account’s unstable
And the wolf is at the door

Lily gets into debt she doesn’t have the resources to pay back. She borrows from her best friend Judy’s husband, Gus, who promises he will invest her tiny income. Later she discovers he has just been “lending” her money and that he has definite ideas as to how she might pay him back. She is slandered and ousted by the rich society women who had welcomed her as an asset at parties on account of her unusual beauty and wit. Lily’s other paramours, including investor Rosedale and the also-married George Dorset (bass baritone Geoffrey Sirett), offer financial support as well, but the nature of these offers becomes clear in a dance during which the singers circle Lily, encroaching upon her with malevolent intent. This is an outstanding example of Kudelka’s use of performers who are primarily opera singers as dancers, the choreography expertly capturing the predatory shadow lurking just beneath the manners and money of Gilded Age New York society. Genteel but poor Lily Bart shrinks from their advances, clever enough to understand, if too late, what her lack of judgment has cost her.

Lily doesn’t comprehend that love might be possible without money, spurning the gentle advances of young barrister Lawrence Selden, beautifully sung by countertenor Scott Belluz. Selden loves Lily and with him she could live contentedly, if she could only re-imagine herself in one of the comfortable, messy, cheap apartments we’ve all lived and loved in. Lily’s refusals makes readers of Wharton’s novel want to shake her, often. But Lily is not us, and Wharton, in her surprisingly contemporary novel, astutely demonstrates exactly the ways in which she is not.

Lily plots, hoping to lure wealthy men she doesn’t much like, let alone love, into offering her marriage. Lemieux, in her solos, expresses these ambiguities in the character. Beautiful, wispy, both self-glorifying and full of self-doubt, Lemieux represents Lily’s appearance at a party put on by a wealthy arriviste couple. Lemieux shows us that Lily, for all her sophistication, hasn’t got a clue how to survive in a gilded world populated by sharks. At heart she is ambivalent about this empty ritual society expects of her, and while appearing poised and self-possessed, necessary attributes of a professional ornament, the vulnerability she actually feels is expressed in the nuanced choreography. In the other songs, the choreography is restrained so that we may also immerse ourselves in the purity of the men’s voices, especially that of Belluz, who tries and fails to lure Lily into a less materialistic view of life:

The spirit is a place,
One travels to alone
A republic of grace
In the soul

It is only at the end that Lily apprehends, too late, what she might have given up. 

Lemieux sweeps alone around the stage, her movements showing us the strain of the complicated masks she must wear and the cracks beginning to appear in them. Lily Bart’s sad story is not told as a narrative as in opera or ballet, but rather in suggestive scenes that tell us more of the feelings of the characters than a staged narrative might have. This sparseness in the telling, mirrored in a spare choreography and set, heightens the power of this surprisingly modern morality tale. The sumptuousness of the Gilded Age is created by Hoax Couture’s shiny embellished costumes, the colours of money appearing in dresses worn by Victoria Bertram, Claudia Moore and Christianne Ullmark, in contrast to Lemieux’s greys.

On the Public Energy site, Kudelka writes: “I propose to tell the story of The House of Mirth, not as a ballet, and not as an opera, and not as a sung play or music theatre. But I would like to work to create a libretto that would allow only the male characters to cue the story through song and to have the female characters be dancers. We plan to look closely at the moral issues and themes that the story brings up, and try to let each of the art forms pick up the thread of the storytelling when that particular form can do it best.”

Toronto writer Alex Poch-Goldin’s poetic libretto successfully accomplishes this task; each piece brings forward a certain mood and moment from the story, allowing us to feel the narrative from the inside out, through movement and music rather than the retelling of events as in a classic ballet or opera. The piece feels new and clean, not layered by the demands of more traditional forms.

What are the moral issues Kudelka points at? Money, or the lack of it, is much on the collective mind these days, in the wake of trillion-dollar bank bailouts, Occupy and the potential crash of the euro. From the House of Mirth is very much a story for our times, addressing as it does the solipsism and callousness of the very rich, including the abandonment of what they see as lesser mortals. Lily Bart is a plaything who broke the rules; her sin was in thinking it might have been possible to win. 

Ursula Pflug with Bill James: A review followed by a conversation

I got together with Peterborough-based veteran choreographer Bill James following the avant première at Peterborough’s Market Hall, when our impressions were still vivid. We enjoyed a lively conversation about the novel, the performance and the history of dance.

Ursula Pflug: Bill, did you have any more thoughts overnight?

Bill James: What struck me was the integration of music and choreography, costumes and set. It felt honest even though it was historical. A lot of historical-type settings for the dancers can overwhelm, but this had enough emotional content in the music that it didn’t feel like that. That can be a rarity in more traditional opera or ballet, where one element is emphasized at the expense of others. Rodney Sharman’s music was amazing; contemporary except for the adaptation of the Liszt and the Franz Grothe. The vocal writing worked really well in the space. It was very three dimensional as a composition, almost like sculpture.

UP: Yes, if you had audience on all sides it would still be effective.

BJ: Kudelka is very good with his use of music so I was expecting that, but the way he integrated the musicians into the choreography, the way he wove it in, that’s actually very difficult to do. It was very precise. The musicians were all strong and the four singers were beautiful.

UP: Let’s talk about the dancers.

BJ: They were very different from each other. That was really interesting–the range of experience and ages. Christianne, Victoria Bertram, Claudia Moore. And Laurence in the main role was just stunning.

UP: She was amazing. Because I’ve been reading the book I found it astonishing how she captured the nuances of the character. There were so many shadings of emotion that expressed the Lily Bart I’d been reading about. Yesterday you said the piece feels so modern and I think that is partly because the text feels modern. It doesn’t really feel like period writing, because of Wharton’s preoccupation with her society. She stood outside of her time as an observer.

BJ: Would you call it one of the first modern novels?

UP: I haven’t actually read her before. Apparently she and Henry James were best friends, so in a way, yes. Poor Lily. She’s very sympathetic but we also see the ways in which she is a creature of her time. What we see as an obvious solution to her problems, she doesn’t see. What did you think of the libretto?

BJ: Very poetic, really strong. A lot of opera librettos are dense and this was very clear. It was easy to understand what they were singing.

UP: Very clean and spare but very focused.

BJ: It was one of the most natural pieces I’ve seen in a long time. You really see the maturity of all the people involved. It was pretty amazing. But it was simple too, not overladen in any way. Clear and simple, not fussy. Historical stuff can get on my nerves sometimes.

UP: Agreed.

BJ: But this worked really well as contemporary work. The choreography was very simple, very sustained. And when Laurence broke out of the solo she was very free, like Isadora Duncan, dancing in a diaphanous, flowing piece of cloth. It was a beautiful, lyrical solo in the middle of the piece, like a centrepiece. And then Kudelka used a little piece of that again at the end. He repeated it when she is a ghost, after she has died. Everything else was more gestural, things everyone could participate in, like gestures and waltzing. That restrained choreography helped it hold together as one thing.

UP: Yes.

BJ: We were tapping into similar ideas about fusion in a company I was part of years ago in Montreal. The two choreographers were Peter Boneham and Jean-Pierre Perreault. They were working with composers and asking composers to do dances that actors and dancers could do themselves. We danced and sang and played instruments, accompanying each other. One of the pieces we did was Calliope, with a score by David MacIntyre. We had to dance with harmonicas in our teeth. Afterwards the harmonicas had teeth marks. We had to keep them from flying out of our mouths.

UP: laughs

BJ: We studied voice for years. It was an attempt to do this total theatre experience, and have the dancers be able to produce all of it, dance, text, song. Having done that work, I can recognize how difficult it is. Of course, in other cultures there has always been amalgamation in theatre, a balance of elements including the spiritual. For example Indonesia. And Africa.

UP: Ours is the culture of fragmentation.

BJ: Yes, but there is a natural desire to have everything amalgamate into one thing. Many performance artists are reaching towards total theatre. We are seeing this in contemporary opera as well. There are a lot of small companies doing contemporary new opera, such as Queen of Puddings and Tapestry. 

UP: I wonder how long it took to put together?

BJ: I know Sharman and James Kudelka have collaborated in the past, so they’d have been used to each other and had something to build upon. And of course CLC is committed to producing him. CLC isn’t like Dancemakers or Toronto Dance Theatre. They will hire the number of dancers they need. They’re very flexible and don’t have a fixed roster of dancers. I love Kudelka’s ballets, but I really love his contemporary work. He can use very contemporary, very irregular music and understand it. Very few choreographers can understand contemporary music that well. Ursula, what haven’t we covered?

UP: I’m looking at yesterday’s notes, again about the dance solo. I said Laurence shows us the contradictions in Lily’s character. In the transformation from text to movement, what astonished me is the astuteness of the translation. To a non-performer, it’s a revelation. It looks like magic and so I find myself asking, does it come from her or the choreography?

BJ: Probably a combination, and an understanding of what that character is about. What really impressed me was the inherent musicality and the interplay of emotions. The movement, the flow of emotions was really beautifully done. A lot more was conveyed than in most opera. In a play it wouldn’t have been as well conveyed as it was by the dancers.

UP: You feel a lot of sympathy for Lily. She doesn’t really understand the world that she’s in until it’s too late.

BJ: No. Let’s go back to Sharman’s music for a moment. The four voices have so much range, from the countertenor to the bass baritone. Scott Belluz, the countertenor, has a huge vocal range and Sharman used it really well. All four were very rich, sonorous, wonderful singers, with great solos. The quartets were so beautiful, all that breadth of sound from only four singers. As well, the singers were always moving with the dancers. Some opera singers think they only have their best voices when they are rooted somewhere, but these guys were able to really move and sing. They were used as anchors, with the dancers hanging off them, or hanging onto them. They were counterweighting the dancers often. It was a nice motif that went throughout, that they were the anchors for Lily and the other flowery women.

UP: Anything else you want to point out, Bill?

BJ: I was impressed by Claudia Moore’s expression. I wish the other dancers had learned to be that free with their faces as well. In dance you are trained not to express with your face.

UP: Why is that?

BJ: Most choreographers prefer the face to be very neutral. They want it to come from the body.

UP: Because in dance that’s where the expression is.

BJ: There used to be more pantomime in ballet, but non-expression has been the movement in the 20th century. It was a reaction against the superficial expression and sweetness of 19th century dance. But Claudia has worked with a lot of theatre directors, a lot of actors, so she was able to express all these things with her face. She was very expressive without it ever being put on. It was very fluid. When a singer is singing they are getting facial expressions naturally, from the emotions in the song.

UP: Yes, you mentioned that yesterday. It makes me want to see it again, so I can pay attention to Claudia’s face.

BJ: The other three dancers could have expressed more. That was really the only tiny fault I found. I also want to mention the final scene, with everyone walking around with umbrellas and veils and hats. It was very painterly, with Laurence being separated from them.

UP: A little surreal, like Magritte!

BJ: Laurence on the outside looking in. She’s a ghost so they don’t see her. She’s among them but they don’t see her. It was really, really beautiful.

UP: Kind of a metaphor for her character. Because of her poverty she is always an outsider to society, always managing her position. As a ghost she is an outsider, but in a way it is a continuation of who she has been all along.

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